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A Coda on Free Will

April 28th, 2009 · 6 Comments

duck-rabbit_illusionI want to pull up a few thoughts from the comments to the post below, prompted by an exchange with a commenter. It’s often said—and indeed, I’ve said it—that whether or not we have free will, we cannot help but act as though we have it. As those who don’t think there’s any such thing are prone to put it, we operate under an inescapable illusion of free will.

I’m now inclined to think that this is a simple mistake. If we act “as though we have free will,” what are we imagining the alternative to be? How are we supposing someone would act if they did not believe their decision processes existed in some bubble of contracausal freedom, instead of merely having an unknown result? Are they supposed to just shut down their conscious minds and wait for the physical processes in their brains to take care of all their choices? To make it explicit is to make the absurdity explicit at the same time: This would be the confused reasoning of someone who has superficially accepted that the mind is the brain, but is still simultaneously clinging to the dualist gap between them. If we mean that everyone uses phrases like: “if I did this” or “I could have tried something else, but…” then I tend to find this about as illuminating as the fact that atheists will sometimes say “God willing” to mean “I hope so.” Which is to say, not very, except as a bit of linguistic anthropology.

A related view is that, whatever the facts of the matter, the process of choosing manifests itself to us “as if it were free.” And again, I think this is just a mistake: We’re sufficiently accustomed to the metaphysical baggage ascribed to choosing that we think that it’s intrinsic to the experience, a “seeming” foisted on us by the subjective character of decision—that inescapable illusion. This is, to repeat the old Wittgenstein chestnut below, like the sunset: It “looks like” the sun is setting, when in reality the earth is turning on its axis. But this is only, as it were, the illusion of an illusion: The visual experience of the sunset is exactly what it looks like to be on a rotating planet. It’s not like there’s some other experience that would be more like watching the sun from a spinning orb; we already have exactly that experience.

If we think there’s an “illusion” of free will that can’t be escaped, we’re probably thinking that there would have to be something else it feels like to make a causally constrained decision (whose result we didn’t know). We see the duck first, and we get so used to it that we’re convinced what we’re looking at is a drawing of a duck. Perhaps someone claims that, in fact, it’s a rabbit—but then they must somehow be looking at a different drawing, because we’re stuck looking at this same damned illusion of a duck. But there is no “illusion”: Drawings aren’t “of” anything; drawings are patterns of ink we interpret as having a meaning that points beyond the symbol we experience. The duck is our interpretation of the drawing, not something built into it, and we’re not stuck with that interpretation just because this is the only drawing around to look at—it’s just that the interpretation is normally so automatic, we think it’s “in there” already, rather than something we tack on. Want to know what the experience of making a choice without the illusion of contracausal free will would be like? You already know. But you may now know that you know. Don’t look for a new experience; just look for the rabbit.

Tags: General Philosophy


       

 

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Trevor // Apr 28, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    If we act “as though we have free will,” what are we imagining the alternative to be?

    Something like Wu Wei?

  • 2 sidereal // Apr 28, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    I’m now inclined to think that this is a simple mistake. If we act “as though we have free will,” what are we imagining the alternative to be? How are we supposing someone would act if they did not believe their decision processes existed in some bubble of contracausal freedom, instead of merely having an unknown result?

    The entire discussion assumes that knowledge or belief on one side or the other would noticeably affect the process of decision-making. I don’t think it does. Imagine a case where you have two people who are otherwise exactly the same, but one believes he has ‘free will’ and the other doesn’t. You offer them soup or salad. Does anyone suspect there’s any chance the choices will differ? The belief is inconsequential to the choices themselves.

    I do believe there’s a difference in subjective experience, in the realm of personal narrative. Believers in free-will might be more, say, optimistic in general. But this is discrete from the experience of the decisions themselves.

    Full disclosure: I believe any belief in ‘free will’ defined as contravening the laws of cause and effect or assuming a significant impetus beyond human neurochemistry is irrational and incorrect.

  • 3 Paul Maurice Martin // Apr 29, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    It’s also possible that free will is a verbal concoction that corresponds to no empirical reality.

    That is, if more were known about, say, particle physics and brain chemistry, we might find that “Do we have ‘free will’ or not?” isn’t even a good question.

    “Contracausal” as an idea of how free will would operate sounds like it would really have to go against the grain. Wouldn’t this require free choices to be miraculous ones?

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Apr 29, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    “It’s also possible that free will is a verbal concoction that corresponds to no empirical reality.”

    Right, I’m taking that for granted.

  • 5 Kevin // Jun 2, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    I think you’re entirely correct to say that free will and determinism where we cannot possibly measure the variable involved well enough to predict the result are indistinguishable. I think that most people who believe in free will don’t consider the latter as the undesirable alternative to free will, however. Rather they believe that with sufficiently advanced measurement devices and data processing that we will one day be able to predict the exact moment that the sun will break through the clouds over your house and likewise predict our actions if our choices are indeed deterministic.

    While I see free will as preferable, I think it’s important to continue trying to prove and disprove it rather than taking it for granted. I’m also not convinced of a strictly causal universe, and even probabilistic causation potentially leaves room for free will.

  • 6 The Illusion of the Illusion of Free Will // Dec 21, 2009 at 2:41 am

    […] written about this at some length before, but I want to quickly repeat the point because I keep seeing reader submissions to Andrew […]

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