Free Will Skepticism: An Incoherent Notion

In an interview with the “Saturday Evening Post”, back in 1929, Albert Einstein said something odd:

In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will.” And then, a few lines later, he adds this, “Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” [1]

Albert Einstein’s statements are confusing. On the one hand, he insists that he cannot believe in free will. But on the other, he feels compelled to “act as if” he, and everyone else, had it. I venture to suggest that he, and many others who make such confusing statements, do so because, well, because they are in fact confused. They have a little riddle, which they have not yet resolved.

So, which is it? Do people have the freedom to decide for themselves what they will do? Or, are their choices made for them by external forces? Are we in control, or is something else, something that is not us, controlling everything that we do?

We Observe Free Will

We observe a woman going into a restaurant. She sits at a table, peruses the menu, and calls the waiter over to place her order. We ask her, “Why did you order the veggie burger and the salad?” She explains that, while she wants to satisfy her hunger and her tastes, she also wants to maintain her good health and appearance. She made a rational choice, one calculated to serve her own practical interests.

We observe that she made this decision herself. She was not a child, whose parent decided for her what she would eat. And there was no one holding a gun to her head telling her what she must choose. In her reasoning, we saw no signs of mental illness, no hallucinations or delusions affecting her choice. And, as far as we know, no one had placed her under hypnosis.

So, we observed someone making a decision of their own “free will”.

By “will” we mean one’s intentions for the immediate or distant future. Her immediate goal was to satisfy her hunger by having lunch. Her more distant goal was to have a long and healthy life, by making good dietary choices.

By “free” we mean she was free of any undue influences, such as those listed. She was free to choose for herself, rather than someone or something else making the choice for her.

By observation then, we know two empirical facts: (1) that a choice was made and (2) that the woman herself made the choice.

We Observe Determinism

We also observe that this choice was “deterministic”. Given who she was at that moment, her goals and desires, her taste preferences, what she had for lunch yesterday, and perhaps many other factors that she consciously or unconsciously included in her calculations, the logical result of her deliberations was to choose the veggie burger and salad.

In theory, had we known all of the weighted variables that went into her decision, we could have made that calculation ourselves, and predicted her choice in advance, with perfect accuracy.

And this is what determinism asserts: that all real objects behave according to reliable cause and effect, such that, if we sufficiently knew the state of things at one point in time, we could, at least in theory, accurately predict the state of things at any future point in time.

You’ll notice that we say “in theory” a lot, because, in practice, we seldom have sufficient knowledge to predict the behavior of anything other than the simplest systems. Complex systems, like the weather, or what a woman will choose for lunch, are more difficult.

So far, in this single act of choosing, we have simultaneously observed both determinism and free will. So, it seems odd for anyone to suggest that free will and determinism could be mutually exclusive.

So, how did Albert Einstein, and many other brilliant minds, manage to get this wrong?

A Logical Fact

It is a logical fact that, given a universe of reliable cause and effect, every event that ever happens is always “causally necessary” or “causally inevitable”. The reason we refer to this as a “logical” fact is to avoid confusing it with a “meaningful” or a “relevant” one.

Causal necessity/inevitability is the idea that each of the causes of an event is itself either a prior state or a prior event, which was brought about by its own set of causes. And that these prior causes had their own causes, going back as far as we can imagine. This is sometimes referred to as a “causal chain”, but it would be more accurate to call it a “causal tree”, since each event will have multiple necessary causes, and each of these causes has its own multiple causes, producing a branching structure.

So then, how does this universal causal inevitability change how we look at things? Well, it doesn’t change anything. The fact that every event that ever happens is causally inevitable does not tell us anything new or anything useful.

Nothing Changes

Consider the woman in the restaurant. Ever since the Big Bang (or any other prior point in eternity), it was causally inevitable that there would be a galaxy containing our solar system, with the planet Earth circling the Sun. And it was causally inevitable that upon this Earth there would eventually appear this specific woman and that specific restaurant. And it was causally inevitable that she would feel hungry around lunchtime, enter the restaurant, sit at a table, and pick up the menu.

So, it was also causally inevitable that she would be faced with a decision. She would have to choose what to order. Thus it was also causally inevitable that she would weigh the menu options in terms of her own interests. And that she would discover that the veggie burger and salad best served her interests at that moment.

Finally, it was also causally inevitable that there would be no one there holding a gun to her head, forcing her to choose the steak dinner instead. And there would be no hypnotist, no mental illness, nor any other undue influence in play. It was just her, deciding for herself, what she would have for lunch.

Thus, it was causally inevitable that she would make this choice of her own free will.

Notice that the repeated insertion of the term “causally inevitable” has not changed our description of this event in any meaningful way. It can be removed, throughout, and we’d still be saying exactly the same thing.

Why We Love Determinism

All of the utility of reliable causation comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. In Medical science, for example, we discovered that specific bacteria cause infections, so we started looking for antibiotics to treat them. And, once we discovered that the immune system could be trained to attack viruses by vaccination, we began to control the spread of certain viral diseases, like polio and measles.

Reliable causation empowers us to take control of many of the events that otherwise would control our lives. That’s why we love determinism.

Why We Ignore Causal Inevitability

But what do we get from the logical fact of universal causal inevitability? Nothing useful.

For example, if I have a decision to make, then knowing the specific results of choosing each option could helpfully inform my choice. But the only thing that causal necessity can tell me is that, whatever I decide, it will have been inevitable. And since that is always the case, it tells me nothing new, and nothing that can help me to decide any practical issue.

Therefore, the rational mind never gives it a thought, because there are no practical matters where causal inevitability itself can make any difference. It is like a constant, that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

A Series of Irrational Implications

Unfortunately, the irrational mind can take a useless triviality and draw all kinds of false and mischievous implications.

Here are some examples: “If everything that happens is causally inevitable, then:”
(a) “The future is already written and there is nothing I can do about it.”
(b) “I have no real choices.”
(c) “I have no free will.”
(d) “The Big Bang is responsible for everything, so I am responsible for nothing.”
(e) “Everything I do is the result of prior causes external to me, so free will must be an illusion.”
(f) “Since I don’t really do anything myself, my self must also be an an illusion.”

So, let’s blow this dust away.

It should not surprise anyone that there will be one, and only one future. After all, we have one, and only one past, to put it in. The meaningful and relevant question then is this: How will this single, inevitable future be causally determined?

Well, what do we have to work with? We observe that the real world consists of physical objects, from the very small, like photons and electrons, to the very large, like stars and galaxies. These objects fall into three major classes: (1) inanimate objects, that passively obey the laws of physics, (2) living organisms, that are animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce, and (3) intelligent species, that are able to imagine possibilities, estimate how different options might play out, and, based upon these calculations, choose what they will do.

Determinism asserts that every event is the reliable result of some specific combination of physical, biological, or rational causes. Our woman in the restaurant, being a physical object, a living organism, and an intelligent species, is a source of all three types of causation.

Her biological hunger tells her it is time for lunch. Her rational mind chooses the meal that will best satisfy her hunger and her dietary goals.

Determinism cannot assert that something other than the woman herself is doing the choosing, because she is the only object at the table which is capable of performing these operations.

Unicorns and Other Magical Beasts

And this is the riddle that Einstein was struggling with: If everything she does is causally inevitable, then isn’t causal inevitability the cause, and not the woman?

The free will skeptic imagines that determinism is some thing that controls what we do, leaving us without any control of our own thoughts or our own actions. The free will skeptic insists that her decision was not her own, but the result of external prior causes, which somehow magically bypass the woman herself, bringing about the event without her knowledge or consent.

But that is empirically false. There is the woman, sitting at the table, considering the menu, deciding for herself what she will order. But where is causal necessity?

The only place it can be found is within the woman herself. What she ordered for lunch was a product of who and what she was at that moment. No prior cause, which had not first become an integral part of the woman herself, could play any effective role in bringing about this event.

The free will skeptic’s view treats causal necessity as an entity separate from the woman, some kind of magical creature controlling her against her will. It is superstitious nonsense.

So, we must conclude that free will skepticism is a false, incoherent belief, even though it was held by someone as intelligent as Albert Einstein.

 

——-

[1] “The Saturday Evening Post”, Oct 26, 1929, “What Life Means to Einstein”, An Interview By George Sylvester Viereck. Link:
http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf

6 thoughts on “Free Will Skepticism: An Incoherent Notion

  1. You – “In theory, had we known all of the weighted variables that went into her decision, we could have made that calculation ourselves, and predicted her choice in advance, with perfect accuracy.”

    FW skeptic – Free will/choice is the result of unpredictability or deterministic chaos because of this the intuitive feeling that both options was viable is an illusion.

    Compatiblist – Well we actually do have to make a choice and only then can we know what was determined. And that is not an illusion. (And even if we could predict accurately a persons choice the fact remains they still have to make a choice)

    FW skeptic – Well the fact remains people *could not* have chosen otherwise in the exact same circumstance therefore we can’t hold them morally responsible.

    compatiblist – How else are we to influence the future choices of rational if not by praising and blaming their past choices?

    FW Skeptic – We are not morally justified in doing that so we can’t do that. But we can lock them up, forcible medicate them and shoot them dead like a rabid dog if necessary. We could also prevent crimes in the first place by changing causal circumstances.

    compatiblist – So your system of forcible medicating anyone who breaks a law is morally better than praising or blaming them? Or regarding them as rabid dogs instead of rational agents? And what is the most important causal circumstance that leads to crime if not the criminals choice to commit that crime?

    FW Skeptic – Encouraging better future choices by *pretending* they are responsible for their past choices is not the way to go. And yes the decision to commit a crime is the most important cause but that criminal didn’t make himself anymore than a rabid dog did.

    compatiblist- What is the way to go then since since we don’t have magic pills and short of drugging them up and locking them in a cage? Yes the criminal didn’t create himself but it was his choice to commit a crime and the only way to reform him is by offering him better options to chose from in the future. And you can’t do that if you tell him he has no real options and no power to choose anything.

    FW Skeptic – It might be pragmatic to attempt to reform a criminal by offering him better options from which to choose and make for himself a better future. But really it’s just an illusion and therefore metaphysically unjustified.

    Compatiblist- Well I’m not talking about metaphysics I am talking about what works and what’s practical. If you what to argue that nonsense then you might as well argue the chair your sitting isn’t really solid – since *ultimately* it’s just made up of sub atomic particles.

    FW Skeptic – Well that’s just pragmatic then and it’s not ultimately really.

    Compatiblist- The whole idea of free will and moral responsibility is ultimately pragmatic. I could say determinism and causality isn’t ultimately really as it’s *ultimately* a cognitive tool to make sense of our environment. So your skepticism has no practical value.

    FW Skeptic- I’m still right though even if its a incoherent and meaningless position to take.

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  2. Hi John, Good to hear from you again. Although that was an interesting “dialogue” presentation, there are several points where I would have a different answer than the compatibilist you describe, and so would the free will skeptic.

    The free will skeptic (for example, Trick Slattery) and I would agree that the source of free will cannot be found in randomness or chaos or indeterminism. Without reliable cause and effect, I could not reliably cause any effect! And I would have no freedom to do anything at all. All our freedoms, including free will, require a deterministic universe, a world of reliable cause and effect. So the notion of “freedom from reliable cause and effect” is on oxymoron. (A truly indeterministic universe would be a world worse than “Alice in Wonderland”, where objects were randomly popping into and out of existence, and the effects of anything I might choose to do would be totally unpredictable).

    You are correct that the free will skeptic often asserts that “people *could not* have chosen otherwise”, and I take that assertion head-on. When referring to what we “can” do today, or what we “could have” done yesterday, we are speaking of the mental process of “deliberate choosing”. Within this context, a “real possibility” or “option” is one of several different things that we could implement into reality IF we chose to do so. When we make our choice and act upon it, then that possibility becomes the single inevitable reality. If it is true that “I can choose either A or B today”, it means that I have two real possibilities, A and B, to choose from. And tomorrow, it will also be true that “I could have chosen either A or B yesterday”, because yesterday I had two real possibilities to choose from.

    The fact that one of those choices, A or B, would suit my purposes and my reasons and my interests better than the other, means that my choosing process was deterministic, and had but one inevitable outcome. But this in no way contradicts the fact that it was also authentically my purposes, and my reasons, and my interests, in other words “me”, that was doing the choosing and in fact made the choice.

    The key fact here is that determinism is not a “thing” in itself that causes me to do this or that. Rather, it is actually I, myself, doing things, and determinism merely describes how I go about it.

    And because it was actually me, the rest of us will want to correct me if I do something wrong. If they were to follow the free will skeptic’s notion that it was not me, but rather the Big Bang that was responsible for my choice, then they would have to find some way to correct the Big Bang. They never actually suggest that, of course, because it is a ridiculous notion.

    But it does suggest that the free will skeptic has little insight into the pragmatic or operational meanings of terms like “responsibility”.

    Well, I don’t want to go on too long here. I think that some of the positions you’ve suggested are taken by free will skeptics are correct and some incorrect and some will depend on which free will skeptic you’re speaking with.

    I do want to clear up my own compatibilist position though. I presume a real world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, when we include all three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. And free will is fully compatible with that real world, as it makes the practical distinction of decisions we make for ourselves, according to our own purpose and reasons, versus choices forced upon us by external coercion (literal or figurative “gun to the head”) or other undue influences (hypnosis, mental illness, etc.).

    It is authentically us that is doing the choosing. And, within the domain of human influence, our choice causally determines the inevitable reality.

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  3. “The free will skeptic (for example, Trick Slattery) and I would agree that the source of free will cannot be found in randomness or chaos or indeterminism. “

    Free will skeptics says it’s an illusion as the “could do” part is the result of unpredictability.

    “(A truly indeterministic universe would be a world worse than “Alice in Wonderland”, where objects were randomly popping into and out of existence, and the effects of anything I might choose to do would be totally unpredictable).”

    Even with quantum indeterminism we still have at least adequate determinism . Stephen Hawkins explains “Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.”

    “But this in no way contradicts the fact that it was also authentically my purposes, and my reasons, and my interests, in other words “me”, that was doing the choosing and in fact made the choice.”

    Trick Slattery would say because you could not have chosen differently (in the exact same circumstance) we cannot praise or blame you for your choice.

    “And because it was actually me, the rest of us will want to correct me if I do something wrong. “

    Well they claim we do or could do that by education, minor penalties or medicating you but we cannot praise or blame you and tell you to take responsibility for your choices because you don’t deserve that as you couldn’t have done otherwise.

    “But it does suggest that the free will skeptic has little insight into the pragmatic or operational meanings of terms like “responsibility”.”

    Indeed Trick Slattery says we should regard criminals as rabid dogs but yet he doesn’t advocate euthanising them. We treat morally responsible agents whose criminal behaviour was the result of a free and rational choice differently to someone whose behaviour was the result of a psychotic episode.

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  4. John: “Free will skeptics says it’s an illusion as the “could do” part is the result of unpredictability.”

    Marvin: And they are mistaken, because the “could do” part is integral to the deterministic process of choosing.

    The mental operation of choosing logically requires this sequence:
    (1) We confront a problem or issue requiring a decision.
    (2) We consider multiple possibilities (“cans” today and “could haves” tomorrow)
    (3) We comparatively evaluate our options (estimating the outcomes of each choice)
    (4) We choose a single option (what “will be”, that is literally our “chosen will”)
    (5) We act upon that choice, bringing about the single inevitable reality (a new “is”).

    Within the domain of human influence, we causally determine, by our own choices, what becomes the single inevitable reality. Causal determinism cannot contradict this fact, but must instead recognize the causal agency of biological objects within the physical universe.

    The logical fact of universal causal inevitability has no more utility to us than the phrase “what will be, will be”. It cannot contradict the fact of free will, because, to be complete, determinism must incorporate our mental function of choosing into the overall picture of causation.

    John: “Stephen Hawkins explains ‘Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.’ ”

    Marvin: Stephen Hawking’s error is forgetting that he is speaking metaphorically. The “laws of nature” do not “govern” anything. They only “describe” how things work. Only the physical objects themselves, and the forces that naturally occur between them, can be said to have any causal agency within the physical universe. Ironically, causation never causes anything, nor do the laws of nature, nor does determinism, nor does causal inevitability. All of these are nothing more than comments. They have no causal agency whatever. They only describe how we, and all of the other physical objects contained within the universe, go about doing what we do, and doing it in a reliable fashion.

    John: “Trick Slattery would say because you could not have chosen differently (in the exact same circumstance) we cannot praise or blame you for your choice.”

    Marvin: But that’s a bit silly, don’t you think? Both praise and blame are deterministic tools for changing human behavior. And if your behavior was bad, due to your own deterministic process of choosing (free will), then we would want to correct that process by giving you better options and discouraging you from making the same bad choices again. On the other hand, if someone where holding a gun to your head, and forcing you to participate in his crime against your will (coercion/undue influence, not free will), then all we need do to correct your behavior would be to remove the gun from your head, and correct the behavior of the guy who pulled the gun on you (of his own free will).

    John: “Well they claim we do or could do that by education, minor penalties or medicating you but we cannot praise or blame you and tell you to take responsibility for your choices because you don’t deserve that as you couldn’t have done otherwise.”

    Marvin: Let’s get one thing straight. “They” (free will skeptics) are not the advocates of responsible prison reform. Psychologists, sociologists, criminologists, economists, and a host of other educated people have been working for those reforms, both in correctional institutions and in society itself, and they have done so without attacking free will or personal responsibility. In fact, rehabilitation is pretty much impossible without the assumption that we are working with an autonomous being that, with addiction treatment, education, skills training, counselling, group therapy, etc., can learn to behave better, and learn to choose to obey the law, of their own free will.

    John: “We treat morally responsible agents whose criminal behaviour was the result of a free and rational choice differently to someone whose behaviour was the result of a psychotic episode.”

    Marvin: Exactly. If the mechanism of their bad behavior was a deliberate choice, then we need to provide the appropriate correctional tools to modify their process of deliberation, while maintaining ultimate responsibility for their improvement with their own deliberate choice to seek a better way. But if the mechanism of their bad behavior was a brain tumor or a mental illness, then we want to appropriately address that problem with medical and psychiatric treatment.

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  5. John: “Free will skeptics says it’s an illusion as the “could do” part is the result of unpredictability.”

    “Marvin: And they are mistaken, because the “could do” part is integral to the deterministic process of choosing.”

    Yes if we knew what we would choose before we choose it we wouldn’t have to bother making a choice!

    (Traditional) Determinism – The present state of the universe determines that a future event will occur with certainty.

    (Adequate) Determinism – The present state of the universe determines the probability of a future event occurring.

    My point is that even with quantum indeterminism we still would have adequate determinism. So I agree with you that indeterminism is at best irrelevant to the free will debate.

    John: “Trick Slattery would say because you could not have chosen differently (in the exact same circumstance) we cannot praise or blame you for your choice.”

    “Marvin: But that’s a bit silly, don’t you think?”

    Indeed.

    “Both praise and blame are deterministic tools for changing human behavior. And if your behavior was bad, due to your own deterministic process of choosing (free will), then we would want to correct that process by giving you better options and discouraging you from making the same bad choices again. “

    Trick is of the opinion that blame is outdated and unprogressive. What his alternative is (apart from the science fiction of magic pills) I don’t know.

    “In fact, rehabilitation is pretty much impossible without the assumption that we are working with an autonomous being that, with addiction treatment, education, skills training, counselling, group therapy, etc., can learn to behave better, and learn to choose to obey the law, of their own free will.”

    Yes the free will skeptics say nothing about this – apart from saying that free will is a metaphysically unjustified assumption.

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    • John: Yes if we knew what we would choose before we choose it we wouldn’t have to bother making a choice!

      Marvin: Indeed! But it’s also a vocabulary issue. The only thing we know for certain is that, if we were to roll back the clock, then they WILL make the same decision. They will have the same thoughts and feelings leading them to the same conclusion. But as soon as someone suggests that the person COULD NOT HAVE made any other decision, then they’ve changed the context of the question! Because, if we have indeed rolled back the clock, then they will be faced with the same decision, and will once again have exactly the same TWO options that, once again, they CAN choose from. However, it is always the case that they WILL make the same choice.

      The single inevitable reality changes nothing about the semantics that are designed to describe the the choosing process. Whenever we speak of what we COULD HAVE done, we are placing ourselves back in shoes of the person confronted with a problem or issue that they need to resolve. And there are ALWAYS multiple real possibilities at that location (the imagination) at that point in time.

      John: “(Adequate) Determinism – The present state of the universe determines the probability of a future event occurring.”

      Marvin: The word “determine” has two meanings, as in, “We were unable to determine (know, discover) whether it was the temperature or the pressure that determined (caused) the chemical reaction to occur.” The concepts of probability and chaos are about our inability to predict (determine as in “to know”) a future event due to either insufficient data or the complexity of the data. But it may be the case that there is perfectly reliable cause and effect that would justify “theoretical predictability”, even if it is practically impossible.

      For the sake of these discussions, I always presume perfectly reliable cause and effect. It keeps things a lot simpler.

      John: “(Traditional) Determinism – The present state of the universe determines that a future event will occur with certainty.”

      Marvin: So I prefer to take on the stronger (traditional) statement rather than the weaker (adequate) one.

      The correct statement of perfect determinism is that “any future state could be theoretically predicted from any prior point in eternity”.

      But it would be literally irrational to suggest that a future state is “caused by” that prior state. It is irrational because it would apply equally to every single prior state throughout eternity. (The Big Bang is only a convenient starting point, but there is no reason to presume just one. See the dicussion of the Big Bounce theory in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_fate_of_the_universe#Big_Bounce ).

      And since there are an infinite number of prior states that would qualify equally as the “cause” of our future event, it would be impossible to choose any one of them. So, the suggestion that any prior state would be a meaningful “cause” of our future event is irrational.

      The only meaningful causes are those that can be identified, predicted, and hopefully controlled by us in some way. As I said in the post: All of the utility of reliable causation comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. There is zero utility in “Que Sera, Sera. Whatever Will Be Will Be.”, which is the totality of the information we get from the fact of universal causal inevitability.

      John: “Trick is of the opinion that blame is outdated and unprogressive. What his alternative is (apart from the science fiction of magic pills) I don’t know.”

      Marvin: Well, if all we can do is blame, then he’d be right. Blame must be followed with correctional guidance. “Punching your sister in the face was wrong! Now her nose is bleeding!” (blame) “So the next time she takes one of your X-men, come to see me, and I will explain to her what she should do instead.” (guidance).

      John: “Yes the free will skeptics say nothing about this – apart from saying that free will is a metaphysically unjustified assumption.”

      Marvin: What they repeatedly fail to get is that free will is not a “metaphysical assumption”. Free will is what we call the empirical event when a person decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion or undue influence. It has nothing to do with anything metaphysical. It’s just a simple matter of what we call stuff.

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