23 August 2019

Bad Free Will Philosophy

Philosophy is an important activity. Ideally, philosophy helps us to make sense of the world, ourselves, and our place in the world. Unfortunately, philosophy, at least on the level that I engage with it, is plagued with unhelpful legacy concepts from the Victorian period. Victorian accounts of subjects like reason, consciousness, and free will are all anachronistic and contradicted by a weight of evidence. It's not clear that these terms offer any advantage as starting places for discussions about the world, ourselves, or our place in the world. Also, virtually all philosophy seems to be solipsistic. whereas we human beings are social animals and we make sense of our world in a social setting. 

Free will is one of the most aggravating subjects to be interested in because the whole discussion is poorly framed: bad definitions, bad methods, and bad theoretical frameworks. Of course, the three coincide in some cases to make for spectacularly bad philosophy, but it only takes one to spoil the whole enterprise. In this essay, I'll walk through what seem to me to be the most egregious aspects of bad free will philosophy.

Bad Definitions

Almost no one starts off a discussion of free will by defining what they mean by free will. And, don't laugh, I'm not going to, either (well, maybe a bit, later on). It is seldom clear what any commentator means by free will, what kind of evidence they think is relevant to the discussion, or what they would consider a valid source of knowledge on the subject. And it gets worse, because not only is free will not defined, but neither are "free" or "will". Much of the time it's not even clear why we need to talk about free will.

Of course, one may sometimes infer from what someone says what assumptions they are making after a while, but this is a very inefficient way to communicate. Worst of all, after one has suffered through enough nonsense to collect sufficient information to triangulate what they actually mean, they usually mean some form of contra-causal free will.

Contra-causal free will is the view (almost universal amongst physicists) that our decisions are not caused by anything. And by "anything" we include everything physical, visceral, and social. So for example, if our own emotions are involved in decision making, then we have no free will. Also, it doesn't count if the decision we make is unconscious. Our state of knowledge tells us that our emotions are involved in every decision, every choice, and every evaluative thought we have because we encode the value or salience of information as feelings. And it seems very likely that all decisions rely on unconscious inferential processes. Ergo, physicists argue that we don't have free will, meaning, we don't have contra-causal free will. But so what? Contra causal free will is a nonsense idea to start with.

Coming back to the problem of bad definitions, the people who are talking about contra-causal free will almost never use the words "contra-causal"; they may not ever have heard the words "contra-causal" (I hadn't, until recently). So, while they appear to be talking about the same thing as other people, they are not, and they probably don't really know what they are talking about, and don't know that they don't know.

A major problem with all these kinds of discussion is that people conclude what they believed at the outset. Deduction from axioms only reproduces the axioms in the end. Assume that we have free will and you can deduce that we must have it because at some point we will judge a proposition to be true on the basis of our belief in the axiom. Assume that we don't have free will and an equally valid line of reasoning will deduce that we cannot have it. This is a built-in flaw of deductive reasoning. We ought to know better by now, but one of the basic assumptions about free will debates is that we don't need to examine our starting assumptions before giving our opinion.

And the reason is obvious. By the time most people have given an accurate account of what they axiomatically believe about free will, it's apparent that they are not interested in having a discussion about it, they merely wish to assert a more or less elaborate belief system. Either that or, by spelling out their assumptions, they realise how stupid the subject is and give up before attempting to communicate it. Most of what makes it into the public domain is ipso facto stupid.

The most egregious examples of this are the ones that grant that I feel myself making decisions, but assert that because the equations that govern the movement of atoms are deterministic, that my decisions are an illusion. In other words, yes, decisions do get made, but we cannot think of them as decisions because that contradicts the model (in which the axiom is "we don't make decisions").

Moreover, the mythical "rational faculty" that is supposed to be the deciding faculty for free will really doesn't exist. This is explained in Mercier and Sperber's book The Enigma of Reason, which looks at the data on how people use reason and shows that we don't. At least, we don't use it for solving problems. 90% of people fail at simple tests of logic, though 80% of us state that we are 100% confident about our answer. All of us do better at solving problems in small groups. What we call "reason" is, in fact, used to propose reasons for things that have already happened. We make decisions using unconscious inference, then, when we need to know why, then reasoning kicks in and produces a reason.

It would be helpful is everyone could spend some time identifying what they believe and why they believe it before contributing to a discussion. 

Bad Methods

Almost everyone who still argues against free will relies at some point on the opinion of Benjamin Libet, which has been proven wrong by his peers. I comprehensively debunked Libet in a blog post called Free Will is Back on the Menu, so I don't really want to go over this ground again. Really, I suppose all I did was repeat the many ways in which other people, Libet's colleagues, debunked his opinion about his results. Libet wasn't exactly a fraud, he just misinterpreted the data based on a faulty model. The intellectual frauds are all the people (mainly physicists) over whom Libet exercised a powerful confirmation bias and who have been uncritically repeating his opinion ever since, without ever looking at the literature within which it is embedded.

Included in the data on human decision making we ought to include all the tests like the Wasson Selection Test that show we don't use reasoning to solve puzzles.

And again, if someone sets out to study decision making, but they take as axiomatic that there is no contra-causal free will, then they are much more likely to design experiments to show this. And again, so what? Contra-causal free will is not a useful way of thinking about human experience. 

Bad Theories

Almost everyone I've come across who denies free will does so either on the basis of a metaphysical commitment to reductionism or a metaphysical commitment to absolute being. So let's look at these.

Metaphysical Reductionism. 

Metaphysical reductionists believe that only the finest possible layers of the universe are real. The search for the nature of reality is the application of a conceptual microtome, slicing the universe so thinly that it cannot be sliced any thinner: atomic means "uncut, indivisible." Obviously, the atom is very cuttable, but we're stuck with calling atoms "atoms" even though our search for the truly atomic continues. This connection with the thinnest layer is why some people link quantum physics and reality.

What's more, they assert that the properties of the atomic entities that exist on that smallest scale are the defining properties of the whole universe. Thus, because they believe it is accurate to describe the universe on the smallest scale as deterministic, then everything, on every scale, is deterministic.

However, there are huge problems with this view. As Sean Carroll will explore in his new book and has talked about in several recent podcasts and various blog posts, we don't know what the world is like on that scale. Of course, we know how to manipulate the equations to predict what kinds of effects we can expect to manifest at a macro-level, but we have no idea what this connotes in terms of physical reality. How does the quantum Hilbert Space relate to reality? No one knows. We don't know what is real at this level and this is the level at which reductionists decide what is real. So... at present we know nothing about reality on those terms.

A majority of physicists have come out against the Copenhagen interpretation of the measurement problem, which in simple terms is the idea that the universe behaves one way when our back is turned and another way when we look at it, which is trickier than it sounds in a system where everything interacts with everything else. But they cannot agree on what does happen. Are there hidden variables that determine how the universe unfolds? Or does each quantum event cause the universe to split into different versions? Are their quantum pilot waves that push the particles around? No one knows. And at present, no one is sure whether we can know. There may be an epistemic horizon beyond which reality exists but we cannot know it or say anything about it. But right now, there is an epistemic horizon and we don't know what lies beyond it or if we ever will. 

Part of the epistemic problem is that we may be able to solve the quantum equations for a single hydrogen atom, but we cannot do so for a deuterium atom, not even in principle. Three particles in a  quantum system make it impossible to provide a precise mathematical description. We have to introduce some pretty gross simplifying assumptions. These assumptions give answers that are pleasingly accurate and precise. When we're already unclear about what the unsimplified equations tell us about reality, how does adding a series of increasingly gross assumptions help get us in touch with reality? Adding simplifications to make the math work takes us further away from reality (if we take the reductionist view). Why is anyone in quantum physics talking about reality

Here's the thing. Metaphysical reductionism is just a bad theory. It ignores the role that structure plays in the universe. It's all very well saying that water is really one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen; but if you have a litre of water and atomise it, you now have no water. You cannot slake your thirst by drinking liquid oxygen (-219 °C) or liquid hydrogen (-259 °C) or any mixture of the two. If water is not real, over and above the existence of its component parts, then the whole category of "real" is nonsense.


The idea of absolute being manifests in many different ways and has a very long and varied history. It was very popular and became highly developed and differentiated in India. And it is still very popular in Advaita Vedanta circles. 

In this idea we are all just manifestations of a larger entity which is characterised by absolute being: it transcends notions of time and space and causation (and all that other metaphysical stuff). Our individuality is an illusion, our "being" as separate from universal being is an illusion, and especially our sense of having free will is an illusion. Absolute being demands strict determinism. So the irony is that even if human beings have free will, God is wholly deterministic. 

However, there is no need to take seriously any theory of absolute being. They are all figments of our imagination. It is not a theory that rests on evidence or makes any testable predictions. Indeed, the  very idea that a spatio-temporal being can experience the Absolute is nonsensical. This is why religieux have to keep making up ad hoc supernatural entities (like a soul or ātman) that are a little bit of the absolute in us; allowing us to bridge the unbridgeable gap between absolute and temporal. Nonsense compounded by more nonsense.

So much for the arguments against free will. However, rather than argue for some version of free will, I want to try to outline the kind of philosophical discussion I find useful. 

Is There A Way Out?

Back in 2016, I wrote a long three-part essay on reality called A Layered Approach to Reality. I was influenced mainly by Richard H. Jones and John Searle. But also by other philosophers and scientists. My small contribution has been a new way to think about the ancient philosophical problem of the Ship of Theseus. In the Layered Approach essay, I argued that reductionism is fine for discovering knowledge about substances, i.e., what the universe and things are made of. And I argued that a universe in which there is one kind of stuff is the only one that is consistent with all the observations and other theories of science. But this is less than half the story of the universe. 

The basic stuff is made into a lot of other stuff, i.e., structures that persist over time, that are insensitive to swapping out identical parts, and which act as causal agents in ways their component parts alone cannot (like water dissolving salt). In other words, structures are real by any useful definition of that term. In Feb 2019, Sean Carroll recently interviewed James Ladyman on the subject of Reality, Metaphysics, and Complexity. Ladyman's philosophy is similar to what I've proposed in that he argues we have to treat persistent structure as real, but there are some differences between us as well. Listening to him wrestle with the status of numbers I wanted to shout, "Read John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality!" Anyway, I just wanted to point out that I'm not the only one. Incidentally, note that John Worrall's (1989) argument for structural realism is a different kettle of fish.

Any biologist will tell you that dissection can only reveal so much about an organism. You could sequence the entire genome, all the epigenetic info, and map all the genes to proteins and you'd still know nothing about how an organism behaves. You have to observe the living organism interacting with its environment as a system in order to appreciate that organism. Analysis and dissection are the methods of reductionism. And again, these are great for studying substances. It's just that if the object we wish to study is a structure, then reductionism is useless because the moment we dismantle a structure to find what it is made of, we cease to have a structure. 

So, we combine reductionism for understanding substance and anti-reductionism for understanding structures. Anti-reductionism is also sometimes called emergentism. George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) first referred to "emergent properties" of structures in 1875. An emergent property is a property of a complex object that is not possessed by any of its component parts alone or in simple combinations (lacking structure). Generally speaking, emergent properties are not predictable from the properties of the components.

John Searle's analysis of kinds of facts can help us understand how this relates to our daily life.

Kinds of Facts

My Searle-y explanation of the ancient problem of the Ship of Theseus illustrates the principle. Timber has certain intrinsic properties that are ontologically objective: they are real and don't depend on an observer, or we could say that they are true for all observers. Intrinsic properties don't allow a pile of timber to transport a hero across a sea. The timber has to be assembled in a particular way to create a range of new properties. The hull of a ship encloses a volume that has a net density that is much less than the density of the timber and less than the density of water. So a structure floats even if the building material does not. Thus we can build ships from steel which is 8 times as dense as water. Low density is an (emergent) property of the structure that its component parts do not possess. Similarly for the shape that makes a ship move easily through the water, and which resists sideways movement, and so on.

Such a structure is then fit for transporting Theseus across the sea. Functions are observer-relative, and require prior knowledge. A naive dweller may look at a ship and conclude, rather, that it is a cistern for keeping water in. However, for a knowledgeable observer, the fact that a ship is a ship, is epistemically objective. It is true for everyone who knows what a ship it.

Most discussions of this ancient problem centre on "identity" which is, at best, an ontologically subjective fact. I would argue that since identity is only apparent with prior knowledge, that identity is likely to be epistemically subjective as well. The question "Is it the same ship?" has to be followed by the question "To which observer?". All the accounts I have read of the problem assume an unchanging observer with prior knowledge, which is nonsense, and why the problem presents as a paradox.

To come back to the relevant point, the timber has intrinsic properties that make it suitable for shipbuilding. But the ship qua structure also has unique intrinsic properties that are limited by, but not determined by, the properties of the components: the density of the building material does not determine the density of the ship's hull. Structures, in other words, are every bit as real as components.

Structures are real

In my essay about layered reality, I accepted the pragmatic premise that structures are real. But I also pointed out that emergent properties accumulate with complexity. Something as fiendishly complex as a biological cell has many layers of properties that cannot possibly be predicated of mixtures of its individual atoms. There are 1000s of relatively simple chemical compounds as well as 10s of thousands of complex polymers such as peptides, proteins, and nucleic acids. 

As I say, we don't really know what subatomic reality looks like. But the atomic theory of matter is a very successful theory in that it explains a great deal and makes nice and highly accurate predictions. Matter at the atomic scale (just beyond the quantum indeterminacy) is deterministic. The laws that govern matter give (relatively) simple answers: the way the universe evolves on that scale is described by relatively simple equations and if we know the state at any given time, we can use the equations to determine its state at any arbitrary time. 

But this very soon breaks down. As with quantum systems, macro systems quickly become too complex to calculate. If we consider the problem is one of calculability, that is, strictly speaking, an epistemic problem, and we call this view weak emergentism. In this view, the entire universe is still deterministic even if we cannot understand it well enough to predict it. Reductionists who dabble in emergentism (like Sean Carroll) tend to favour this kind of emergentism.

However, if emergent properties are real, if they result in more than just increasing complexity and actually produce wholly new properties, then we have a new ontology at each new level and this is strong emergentism. Reductionists argue for a single, fundamental, ontology combined with some necessary approximations to cope with complexity. Metaphysical antireductionists argue that only the universe considered as a whole, with everything affecting everything else all the time is real (this position is rare). I take a middle path: reductionism for substance, and antireductionism for structures. 

One complicating factor is that in non-linear systems (typically where a large number of components are interacting) predictability may fall to zero. And this happens quickly. A simple pendulum is entirely predictable. But add another degree of freedom halfway along, a pendulum hanging from the end of a pendulum, then the result is apparently chaotic and certainly unpredictable. But this does not make it non-deterministic. The system is still evolving according to patterns (which we call laws when we can codify them), it's just that the system is highly sensitive to changes in the initial conditions. The pattern of a double pendulum is too complex to be computable with any usefulness. The question is whether at some point the unpredictability becomes non-deterministic, i.e. not simply that we cannot determine the pattern from observation, but that the evolution of the system is not governed by simple laws at all. No one would argue that living cells do not change in ways that have patterns, but do such patterns as exist constitute determinism?

The difference between a mass of unstructured matter and, say, a living cell, is vast. So vast that it opens the door to strong emergentism. And if matter organised into biological cells is not deterministic, then how much less so an organism composed of trillions of such cells, themselves structured into organelles, organs, and systems, all in multiple feedback loops. And as we now learn, all in meaningful relationships with our symbiotic microorganisms on the skin and in the gut.

Cutting Loose the Legacy of God

One might ask why we debate free will at all. It is, after all, a theological concept designed to make God seem to be less of a monster for having invented evil and suffering. We're under no obligation to the legacy philosophy and theology of the past. Indeed, the question of whether we have free will is not really the best place to start a discussion about morality. It doesn't even come into my long essay on the evolution of morality for example. What kinds of questions might we really interested in? 
Mainly, as far as I can see, we're nowadays interested in the issue of culpability. It is through this issue that discussion of will has become naturalised in the secular world, i.e., in the absence of god what is the basis for our continuing with the idea that good people deserve to be rewarded and bad people deserve to be punished. In a sense, this is now the issue. Not God's big evil, but our petty human evil. But culpability admits to degrees. I discussed this to some extent in an essay in 2015 called Why Killing is Wrong and I'm actually working on a more nuanced version of this in an essay provisionally entitled Objective Morality (chosen to be provocative). I also touch on relevant issues in my recent essay We Need to Talk About Utilitarianism, which criticises the assumptions that utilitarians make and the way they address moral questions.

If I kill someone, the question is not "am I culpable", but "to what extent am I culpable?" My role in society may involve killing or allow it in certain circumstances (soldiers, police, doctors). As a citizen, I am allowed to defend myself, my loved ones, and my property and lethal force may sometimes be justified. And so on. There are many nuances. 

We know that decisions and choices are influenced by many factors, not least of which is our social environment. It's now many decades since social psychologists pointed out that assuming a person's behaviour is 100% because of their internal motivations is a fallacy (the fundamental attribution fallacy). We are social animals, and much of our behaviour is influenced by what our group expects from us, or at least how we perceive their expectations. We have mutual obligations, sometimes these take the form of rights and duties. We're also subject to "priming", by which I mean if we're having a bad day, for whatever reason, we make different decisions than if we're having a good day. It may even be that what we encounter in the moments before making a decision unconsciously influences the outcome.

Societies do best when there is political stability and citizens are prosperous. Too much stability and a society will stagnate, cease to innovate, and when the time comes they will fail to respond to changes in the environment.  Too little stability and the society will become chaotic and fall apart from the inside out. So we consider everyone to be under mutual obligations. And in large societies, we formalise rights and duties in law codes, the oldest examples of which are almost as old as civilization itself. No human being ever had absolute free will because we live, we exist, in a social network with mutual obligations. Any philosophy that ignores this aspect of humanity is worthless. 


Discussing free will in a reductionist framework is filled with traps. For example, reductionists conclude that anything which is dependent on something else is not real, because it can be reduced to its components. And we've seen how badly physicists go wrong already: If Amy has six apples and Sheldon reduces them to a quark-gluon plasma in a super-apple collider and captures the plasma in a specially designed container that prevents any loss of matter or energy, how many apples does Amy have? None. Reductionists literally cannot see the forest for the trees. Or they cannot see the universe for the quantum fields.

One of the most common reductionist tropes is that human experiences are "just an illusion". It doesn't matter that you have a persistent sense of self, a lasting personality, are able to remember your life, and experience love. In a reductionist framework, it makes sense to say that free will is an illusion, because making decisions is a mental activity, and because everything that is involved in the decision-making process is complex and dependent on component parts. 

If we take an anti-reductionist approach to structure, the fact that an object or entity is complex and made of parts is not important as long as the structure persists over time. Of course, some reductionists also say that time is an illusion. Certainly, the way we measure time is somewhat arbitrary - we simply count the number of iterative processes or events that occur over the period of observation. Time measurements are arbitrary in this sense, but this does not mean that time is an illusion, far from it. Time is a way of talking about the patterns of change that we perceive in the universe around us. Because we can retain information about previous states and compare them to the present, we can perceive change. Change is ubiquitous and unidirectional with respect to the second law of thermodynamics. This gives us the so-called "arrow of time", by which we mean that far in the past the universe was in a low entropy state and the total entropy has been steadily increasing ever since. So time is also real. It doesn't matter that time is not absolute, because nowhere in my definition of real is there any reference to absolutes. Indeed, I'm inclined to argue against absolutes on principle. For example, we know that relativity is wrong at the beginning of time (the big bang) because it predicts a universe of infinite density. That kind of absolute tells us we've made an error, no matter how good the equations are in less curved spacetime. Even if someone manages to prove beyond reasonable doubt that time is an emergent property of quantum fields (and it already seems likely that space is such an emergent property) it won't make time an illusion. 

The problem here is that illusions are not causal. An illusion doesn't make a difference in the world because it cannot interact with the world. Thus, to say that free will is an illusion is to say that humans make no difference in the universe. This is not merely dismal fatalism, it's self-defeating. If humans make no difference, then it makes no difference what we believe and there is no reason to believe that we don't have free will. It is equally valid (at least) to believe that we do have free will. As a philosophy, it ought to lead to passivity, but it doesn't. People who don't believe in free will go on being active and making decisions; they just tell themselves a story about the experience of deciding that makes sense in a legacy/reductive framework, but doesn't in a more sensible framework. 

The same arguments occur for having a sense of self. Of course, self is not an entity; of course, it is generated by the brain, but to argue that our sense of self is not causal, that it makes no difference, is clearly ridiculous. Else why would so many people want to persuade us to stop believing in it? 

The (ill)logic of the Free Will Illusion

The argument is that free will is an illusion, i.e., that there is no free will, and that our apparent free will is not causal, i.e., it makes no difference in the world. But if it is not causal, why is it a problem? The answer is usually that our belief in free will (or self or whatever the "illusion" is) is problematic in some way (usually it makes us unhappy). So free will is an illusion but, being a potential causal agent, a belief is not an illusion. Indeed, in this argument, a belief is real and has causal potential. Beliefs make a difference in the world or they would not be a problem. 

We often see that the same metaphysical reductionists who get so exercised about free will being an illusion seem to become apoplectic about people who hold religious beliefs or even those people who continue to believe in free will. But if free will is an illusion and the world is deterministic why does it matter what anyone believes? Indeed, if there is no free will then no one has a choice about what they believe and trying to persuade them to change their mind is a wild contradiction in terms. If there is no free will then no one ever changes their minds because that would require us to be free to do so.

The reductionist argument about free will being an illusion is not followed through to its logical conclusion by any of its proponents (that I know of). There is clearly a glaring contradiction in asserting, on the one hand, that "free will" (whatever we mean by it) is an illusion and, on the other, asserting that beliefs are persistent in time and causal (i.e., real). Because believing, willing, and selfing are all of the same kind; they are all forms of mental activity (and this epistemically and ontologically subjective). If a belief is causal, then so is our will. Or if will is not causal, then neither are beliefs. You can't have it both ways. 

It does matter what we believe and it matters what we do, if only to the people around us. Because of the latter, the reasons we discern behind our own actions also matter. Will, belief, and behaviour have to be seen in a social context. We need to be able to produce accounts of our behaviour (i.e., reasons) that make sense to those around us, more especially when our behaviour contravenes group norms. Morality evolved in, and only makes sense in, a social context. The broad parameters are limited by our biology, but our flexibility as a species allows for huge variety in mores and customs (and interpretative frameworks).


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