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Compelled to Believe in Freedom

January 16th, 2003 · No Comments

Gene offers an argument against determinism that I’ve seen advanced by Tibor Machan, and I’ve got to confess it doesn’t strike me as any better now than it did when I first read it. In a nutshell, the argument runs as follows: there are certain apparently compelling reasons offered by many philosophers to the effect that we don’t have free will. But if they’re right, then how are we to interpret my being convinced by the argument? Merely as the upshot of a physical process whose outcome was fixed before I was born. Of course, one might object that this isn’t strictly true, since quantum randomness complicates matters — but my believing the arguments because the state vector of some quantum packet collapsed this way rather than that doesn’t seem to get us any closer to my “having a choice about what to believe,” as Gene puts it. The problem is that this might appear to undermine my own acceptance of the argument: I may be caused to believe there’s no free will, but it seems I can no longer represent myself as responding to reasons for believing it. In other words, given the physical processes involved, the particular brain state that arises from certian verbal stimuli (the argument against free will) would subvene the mental state “accepting the argument” whether it were any good — whether it were true — or not.

The problem is, it’s not clear how choice makes the matter any better. Why should we think that a free and unconstrained “choice” to believe proposition X lends any more support to its validity? Consider that paradigm of unfree reckoning, the computer. The structural properties of a circuit taking digits as inputs may lead us to be confident that the output will, indeed, be the sum of those two numbers. More generally, we’re confident that certain purely syntactic manipulations of inputs in accordance with some formal system — say, predicate logic — can preserve truth in outputs. Now imagine that the circuit is imbued with a strange property called “free choice.” The outputs are no longer strictly determined by the combination of the inputs and the system’s structural features. Does this make us more confident, or less confident, in the results of the calculation?

The idea that “choosing” what to believe is somehow an integral part of being justified in that belief flies in the face of a lot of our ordinary language. We will not find it persuasive if someone says we should just decide to believe something: ideally, the logic of an argument is supposed to force us to a conclusion that we must accept. When you do a logical derivation or a mathematical proof, its force is tied not to a sense of freedom, but to our perception that this is how one has to proceed. Now, one might object: a computer will generate true outputs only if it has the right kind of physical structure. The rules of inference we obey in reasoning (modus ponens, etc.) certainly seem incontestable, but if we’re merely physical brains, then whatever inference rules were embedded in our neural structure would seem similarly self-evident. Yes, but isn’t that consistent with out experience? There’s no non-circular way to justify our most ground-level epistemic principles, but neither do we have any coherent way of rejecting them. Even to raise the justificatory objection is to make a move in a reasoning game defined by those principles. Does this mean that they might, after all, not be quite right — that like Euclidian geometry they would do well enough “locally” to seem true and be selected for by evolution, yet turn out not to be strictly accurate, as Robert Nozick has suggested? Well, sure. But what more can we expect? We know from neurobiology that there are all sorts of brain disfunctions that can cause people to hold persistent, ineradicable irrational beliefs, even as they otherwise seem to function normally. They are as subjectively confident in the power of their reasoning as are we. That shouldn’t throw us into any kind of radical skeptical doubt since, again, the doubt itself would still rely on those same epistemic principles, and anyway, it’s not clear what else we have to rely on. But to expect some sort of a priori certainty that our mode of reasoning (this “form of life” as the Wittgenator would say) is transcendentally valid would be just silly, in the face of observable instances where that feeling of certainty can be neurochemically manufactured.

Finally, let me note that even if this is wrong, it doesn’t really touch on Gene’s real target, which he identifies as “materialism.” Now, a lot of people have similar trouble squaring a “physical” view of persons with the fact that we all have these experiences — color, pain, and all the rest that philosophers lump together under the term “qualia” — that seem not to have any place in a brain system described only in terms of what Blake called the “colorless allcolor of atheism.” But is that so? As Thomas Nagel argued in his seminal paper “What is It Like to Be a Bat?” the apparent incompatibility arises because (to dramatically oversimplify) were really just noticing that our mental picture of a physical brain — a grey squishy thing that maybe looks like an MRI scan or something, particles bouncing around, etc. — isn’t much like having an orgasm or seeing the view out your window. But why would we expect otherwise? The conclusion, in other words, shouldn’t be that our experiences must be something other than material, but only that our representation of “the physical” is (perhaps incorrigibly) incomplete. We have only a very impoverished sense of what “matter” is really like. The same, I imagine, is true of free will. There isn’t much controversy that our actions, at least — raising your arm, walking down the street, making language noises — are physical events with physical causes. If it turns out that the brain-outputs that give rise to these events aren’t explicable just in terms of the inputs and internal physical processes — or if it turns out that quantum indeterminacy in the brain seems to follow inexplicable patterns that deviates from what the equations themselves would predict — then we might conclude that there were something like “free will” after all. But this wouldn’t necessarily be a blow against materialism — it could instead just be an indication that the material world is more complex than we had supposed, just as relativity and quantum theory showed it to be more complex than Newton had supposed.

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