Monday, April 12, 2010

Balaguer on Free Will, Part One

After reading and enjoying one of Mark Balaguer’s papers on free will I also ordered and read his book Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem.   Not only did I like his approach to the topic, but his opening arguments, discussed below, clarified for me the reasons for my own vague dissatisfaction with much of the contemporary literature on free will.

(Note:  In these posts I’ll present much of the discussion in my own words; Balaguer himself is very precise in defining his terms and setting forth the arguments.  So, I recommend the book for those interested, but also in the online domain take a look at this paper, "The Metaphysical Irrelevance of the Compatibilism Debate", which overlaps with the first two chapters of the book, as well as a discussion of the paper and then the book itself in several posts and comment sections at the “The Garden of Forking Paths” blog – here, here, here, and here.)

Much of the philosophical energy on the topic of free will has been devoted to debates over compatibilism:  these are questions such as “is the ordinary language sense of ‘free will’ compatible with determinism?”  Balaguer notices something about these debates:

1. There are a number of philosophers who think humans have some kind of libertarian freedom.
2. There are also quite a large number who think compatibilism is true (i.e. they would answer yes to questions like the one above).
3. But, interestingly, few people are on record as believing both of these things.

And, yet, as he points out, these are independent questions.  It seems those who are inclined to think humans have a meaningful sort of freedom argue against compatibilism, while those inclined to think determinism is true (or to think that any indeterminism in nature can’t provide meaningful freedom) argue in favor of compatibilism.  But, the various notions of compatibilist free will are obviously consistent with an actual situation of humans having meaningful freedom.  So, why don’t more philosophers endorse some kind of libertarian freedom while also conceding that (some version of) compatibilism is true?  What has happened is that because the facts about human freedom are difficult and unsettled, philosophers have diverted their energies into debates about compatibilism.

But the first kind of question – which kinds of freedom (if any) do humans have? -- is the only big interesting metaphysical question here.  Compatibilism debates are arguments over semantics (definitions, ordinary language usage, etc.) and over the consistency of various concepts of free will with moral responsibility.  It isn’t that these questions aren’t at all interesting, but what I call the big question is untouched by them.  If we knew which sorts of freedom (if any) humans had, and if we also had an answer for the semantic question regarding what “free will” is, then we would have a definitive answer to the question “do humans have free will?”  But we don’t know the answer to the first question yet, and so the compatibilism debate is just a semantic debate keeping us busy in the meantime.  I think this critique is right, and it is why, as someone deeply interested in metaphysical explanations, I’ve been less interested in what has been a large swath of the free will literature dealing with compatibilism.

Balaguer believes that the answer to the big question is an open problem.  Given the arguments and evidence available we don’t have a good reason to answer yes or no to the question.  However, because a majority of contemporary philosophers think humans aren't free (or at least lean in that direction), he spends his time in the book formulating the case that we don’t have good reason to believe humans lack meaningful freedom.  He’s not saying we can settle the argument in favor of freedom yet either, but that it’s an open question.

Another part of his thesis is that while I’ve called this a metaphysical question, it actually reduces to an open scientific question.  This is because (he argues) that the question of freedom reduces to a question of the presence of certain indeterminacies in human decision-making.  Because this question can be determined in principle scientifically (even if this will be difficult), then the question of human freedom is an open scientific problem.  (Balaguer also thinks metaphysical questions generally reduce to empirical questions, or else they are either questions of logic or are meaningless.  I think this would be interesting to debate, but will leave it aside for the time being).
In the next post I'll get into his arguments for why there might be indeterminacies in human decision making and why these would suffice to provide meaningful freedom.


Doru said...

I find “free will” arguments as one of the most fascinating. What is your perspective on “Susan Blackmore’s idea of clearing up our minds of the delusion of “free will” and that we can make decisions outside of the deterministic realm, so the memeplexes can do their work more efficiently? In other words, is the “no thought state” the only free choice humans can have? Are there any entities in the quantum realm of endless possibilities that can manifest through choices we make?

Steve said...

I don't know about giving up the delusion. Whether or not we're at all free, can we really act as if we're not free? When we're undecided but must make a choice, we can "choose" to think our decision is determined I guess. But the reality seems to be that we make spontaneous decisions all day, every day. Are these free or determined? The answer doesn't seem obvious to me.

In terms of endless possibilities: there's no question that we're constrained by prior circumstances and context. Even if we have some freedom, I'm pretty sure we have less than we at first think. In fact, I think a flaw in some free will debates is the presenting of a false choice between naive free will and full determinism. There can be degrees of freedom, and I have thought it likely that we have some freedom, just less than the naive view.