Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Do We Have Free Will?

Florida State University philosophy professor Alfred Mele has an interesting piece on the topic of free will at Big Questions Online.

He looks at the neuroscientific experiments, such as those by Benjamin Libet, which have been adduced in support of the view that free will is an illusion and finds the evidence inconclusive. One of the distinctions he draws in his piece is between what he calls the "modest conception" of free will and the "ambitious conception."

Here's an excerpt from his article:
Why do you care about free will? I doubt that the ability to make spontaneous, unreasoned choices in experiments of the kind I’ve been discussing has a prominent place in your answer. Whatever answer you give will tell me something about what you mean by “free will.”

In my own research and writing, I’ve worked with two different but overlapping ways of understanding what “free will” means. One is more modest than the other, and I keep them both on the table; I don’t choose between them. As I see it, both encompass the ability to learn from our successes and mistakes and the ability to improve our behavior in light of what we learn. These abilities are important not only for personal development but also for social cohesiveness. Success and failure often depend on how other people respond to our actions.

According to a modest conception of free will, as long as you’re able to make rational, informed, decisions when you’re not being subjected to undue force and also are capable of acting on the basis of some of those decisions, you have free will – at least at those times. (Being threatened with a loaded gun is a good example of undue force.) According to a more ambitious view, something crucial must be added to these abilities: If you have free will, then alternative decisions are open to you in a way requiring that the natural laws that govern your brain activity sometimes give you at most a probability of deciding one way and a probability of deciding another way.

Imagine someone who is seriously considering cheating on his taxes while filling out his 1040. The ambitious view says that he can’t make a free decision about this unless there is a real chance – left open by the combination of everything that has already happened and the laws of nature – that he will decide to cheat and a real chance that he will decide to be honest.

People tend to find ambitious free will more exciting than its modest counterpart. So I focus on it here. Most people assume that the future is open in a certain way. As they see it, not only don’t we know now exactly what we will do next week, but it also is not determined now exactly what we will do then. What will happen is partly up to us in a way that it could not be if all our actions were already in the cards, as it were.

The existence of ambitious free will depends on the truth of this assumption. Have neuroscientists shown that the assumption is false? Absolutely not.
Mele goes on to explain this assertion. It's an interesting piece, especially for the philosophically inclined.

One thing he doesn't really get around to giving a satisfactory answer to, however, is the question he poses at the outset of the passage quoted above. Why is free will important to us?

I think the answer is, at least partly, this: If there is no free will (in Mele's "ambitious" sense) then several very unpleasant consequences follow. First, if our choices are determined for us by forces outside our control then no one deserves to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished. Desert only is warranted to the extent that we are responsible for what we do, and we can only be responsible if we are in some sense able to choose.

Secondly, there can be no moral duties or obligations if we do not freely choose our actions. Right and wrong become meaningless, at least as moral terms, in a deterministic world. To say that one ought to do X is to imply that one can do X, but unless we are in some sense free we can only do what we are determined by our environment or our genetics to do.

Thirdly, there's no ground for human dignity. Our dignity, as the existentialists insisted, is rooted in our ability to choose our destiny. Take that ability away and we have no more dignity than any other mammal.

This doesn't mean that there aren't problems with free will. There certainly are. Perhaps the biggest is trying to understand what a genuinely free choice is like. Surely a free choice is not uncaused, but what causes it, does that cause determine it, and is that cause itself determined?

Despite such vexing questions, if we wish to hold on to notions of personal responsibility, moral duty, and human dignity we have to believe that in some sense, at some moments, there really is more than one possible future. There's a lot at stake.