Yes, I Could Have Done Otherwise

The Problem

The hard determinist tells us that anyone who says “I could have done otherwise” is deluding themselves and suffering from an “illusion” of free will. Assuming a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, is he right? No, he is mistaken. The hard determinist is confusing what we “can do” with what we “will do”.

The truth is that whenever choosing occurs, “I could have done otherwise“ will always be true, but “I would have done otherwise” will always be false.

The Single Possibility Paradox

It is impossible to choose between a single possibility.

  • Waiter (a hard determinist): “What will you have for dinner tonight, sir?”
  • Customer (hungry): “I don’t know. What are my possibilities?”
  • Waiter: “In a deterministic universe, there is only one possibility.”
  • Customer (disappointed): “Oh. Okay then, what is my one possibility?”
  • Waiter: “How should I know? I can’t read your mind!”

Choosing requires two things to be true before it can begin:

  1. There must be at least two real possibilities to choose from (for example, A and B).
  2. The chooser must be able to choose either one (for example, “I can choose A” is true and “I can choose B” is also true, even if I cannot choose both).

Unless these two conditions are satisfied, choosing cannot happen. Choosing always requires multiple possibilities.

So, Does Choosing Happen?

Choosing happens. We objectively observe choosing when we watch people enter a restaurant, browse the menu, and place an order. We also observe that a person is held responsible for their deliberate choice when the waiter brings them the bill.

Choosing is an operation. It inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice. Each of us performs this operation many times every day. But it is not just a subjective experience. A person making a complex decision, like which automobile to buy, may write down a list of “pros and cons” to help evaluate their options more objectively. And choosing is not just a personal operation. We also witness groups of people making choices together, perhaps brainstorming to generate options, then prioritizing to decide what they want to tackle first. Clubs, parent-teacher associations, legislatures, and other groups make decisions all the time.

Choosing is important. It is routinely performed by all intelligent species. The ability to imagine different ways of solving a problem, to estimate the likely outcome of each option, and then to decide what we will do, enables us to deal more successfully with environmental challenges, contributing to the survival of our species.

Because choosing is so important, the determinist should take care not to break it. Insisting upon having only a single possibility breaks the choosing operation.

Possibilities and Uncertainty

The notion of a “possibility” allows us to deal with uncertainty. When we do not know what “will” happen, we imagine what “can” happen to better prepare for what does happen. If we drive down a road and see a green traffic light, we know that it “can” turn red, so we are alert for that possibility.

Things that “can” happen exist within the imagination. We cannot drive a car across the “possibility” of a bridge. We can only drive across an actual bridge. However, to build an actual bridge, we must first imagine a possible bridge, and produce a plan for its construction.

A possibility is considered “real” if we can make it happen if we choose to. Our bridge was a real possibility because we had the skills and materials to successfully build it. But what if we later decide that we will not build the bridge? Does this mean that our bridge was “impossible”? No. The possibility remains real, even if we never get around to building it.

The bridge itself never became an “actuality”, but the possibility was real from the point where it was first imagined. And when we say that something “could have” happened, we are always speaking of something that did not happen. The bridge was never built, but it “could have” been built if we had chosen to build it.

So, when the hard determinist claims that there was only one thing that “could have” happened, he is confusing the notion of what “can” happen with the notion of what “does” happen and what “will” happen. Even though the bridge “will not” happen, it remains true that it “could have” happened if we chose to make it happen.

Choosing and Uncertainty

All choosing operations begin with a state of uncertainty. We have two or more options that we “can” choose, but we do not know yet which one we “will” choose.

For example, I wake up hungry and wonder what I should fix for breakfast. Three familiar options come to mind: scrambled eggs, pancakes, and french toast. I go to the kitchen to see whether I have the ingredients. I have eggs, so I can fix scrambled eggs. I have bread, so I can also fix french toast. But I have no pancake mix. So, I cannot fix pancakes this morning.

But both the scrambled eggs and the french toast are real possibilities. As I evaluate each option, I recall that I had eggs yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. Suddenly, scrambled eggs do not sound as appetizing as they did earlier. I decide that I will fix french toast this morning.

Could I have fixed something other than french toast? Yes. I could have fixed eggs again. And if I were out of bread, then I would have fixed eggs. The fact that I did not fix eggs does not contradict the fact that I could have fixed eggs if I wanted or needed to.

The Rule

Within a universe of perfectly reliable cause and effect, whenever choosing happens, “I could have done otherwise” will always be true.

Why? Because whenever we perform a choosing operation there will always be at least two “can do’s”.  In my breakfast example, “I can fix scrambled eggs” was true and “I can fix french toast” was also true.  Had either of those been false then choosing could not have happened. Why? Because it is impossible to choose between a single possibility.

Each “can do” at the beginning of a choosing operation becomes a “could have done” at the end.

So, when the hard determinist claims that “could have done otherwise” is impossible, he is mistaken.

“Could Have” versus “Would Have”

But “would” I have made a different choice under the same circumstances? No, I would not. The same reasons that led me to fix french toast the first time would still be good reasons. So, I would always choose french toast over a fourth day of scrambled eggs. And if we were to roll back the clock and replay this decision process we would always get the same result. So, in a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect the notion that “I would have done otherwise” will always be false.

So, given a deterministic universe, “I could have done otherwise” will always be true, but “I would have done otherwise” will always be false.

If the determinist limits his claim to “I would have done otherwise” is always false, then he would be correct. But that is not the hard determinist’s claim. He insists that I “could have done otherwise” is  “delusional”.

How Did He Get It Wrong?

We humans often speak and think “figuratively” rather than “literally”. We use metaphors and similes to express ideas. For example, the determinist looks at a causally necessary choice, and, since the outcome was inevitable, he imagines that it is “like choosing never happened” or it is “as if the choice was already made in advance” or he may say “choosing scrambled eggs was never really possible”. But he will leave out the words that flag metaphorical language, because he is taking his figurative statements literally.

Figurative statements have a one serious flaw. Every figurative statement is literally false. By “literally false” I mean that they are empirically, objectively, and in actual reality false.

To confirm this, all we need do is look at the facts:

(1) When the hard determinist claims that “choosing never happened”, is that a fact? No. Choosing really happened. It was an empirical event that took place in objective reality. So, the determinist’s claim is false.

(2) What about the hard determinist’s claim that “the choice was already made in advance”? Well, no, that is not true either. The choice was made through the choosing operation, and the choosing operation did not happen until I performed it. The Big Bang did not choose to fix french toast for breakfast, I did.

(3) And finally, what about the hard determinist’s claim that choosing scrambled eggs was never “really” possible? That too is false. Whenever someone makes a choice, two things must be true by logical necessity, (1) there must be at least two real possibilities to choose from and (2) we must be able to choose either one. I could have fixed the scrambled eggs if I chose to. The fact that I decided to fix french toast does not logically imply that fixing scrambled eggs was ever impossible. The fact that it did not happen does not contradict the fact that it could have happened.

So, all three of the hard determinist’s claims are false.

About “Can” and “Will”

What “can” happen constrains what “will” happen. Something that cannot happen will not happen.

What “will” happen does not constrain what “can” happen.

Possibilities are only constrained by two things: our imagination and our ability to “make our dreams come true”. If we have the imagination, the skills, and the resources to actualize a possibility, then that possibility is real. And it remains a real possibility even if we never actualize it.

About Causation

Causation itself never causes anything. The notion of causation is used to describe the interaction of objects and forces as they bring about events. We use the cue stick to hit the cue ball at a given angle that causes the ball to roll and hit the 8 ball in such a way that causes it to roll into the corner pocket. Causation did not do that. We, the cue stick, the cue ball, and the 8 ball are the objects. And the force we applied to the cue stick is the force that was passed from object to object. That force and those objects are the causes of the “into the corner pocket” event. The objects and forces caused the event.

The notion of causation is only used to describe the interaction of the objects and forces. The notion of causation itself is neither an object nor a force. Causation never causes anything.

About Determinism

Determinism itself never determines anything. Determinism asserts that the behavior of the objects and forces that make up the physical universe is reliable. Because it is reliable, every event will be the reliable result of prior events through some specific combination of physical, biological, or rational causal mechanisms.

We need this reliability to predict the outcome of our own actions.

Objects behave differently according to how they are internally organized. (1) Inanimate objects behave passively in response to physical forces. A bowling ball on a slope will always roll downhill. (2) Living organisms behave purposefully due to biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. A squirrel on a slope may go uphill, downhill, or any other direction where he hopes to find an acorn or a mate. He is not governed by gravity unless you drop him. (3) Intelligent species have evolved a neurological infrastructure that enables them to imagine, evaluate, and choose. They can behave deliberately, choosing when, where, and how to eat, sleep, and procreate. They are free to choose what they will do.

Determinism never determines anything because, like the notion of causation, determinism is a concept used to describe the behavior of objects and forces. It is not itself an object or a force. It is not an entity with a brain that can perform the choosing operation, so it never “decides” anything.

Only intelligent species can decide for themselves what they will do.

About Free Will

There are two distinct notions about  what the word “free” means in the term “free will”.

Operationally, free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do while free of coercion and other forms of undue influence. An “undue influence” would be any external force or internal condition that effectively cripples their ability to decide for themselves what they will do. An external force would be a person holding a gun to their head or any other threat that forces them to submit their will to the will of another. Other influences that compromise self-control include mental illnesses that disable the ability to reason, or causes hallucinations and delusions, or create an irresistible impulse. Any of these or other extraordinary influences can affect how we assess that person’s moral or legal responsibility for their actions.

Operational free will is not a subjective experience. It is an empirical distinction between a choice we make for ourselves versus a choice imposed upon us by someone or something else. Whether a person acted of their own free will, or whether they were coerced or otherwise unduly influenced, is a matter of objective evidence.

Philosophically, free will is irrationally defined as a choice someone makes that is free of reliable cause and effect. The philosophical notion assumes that, in a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, every event is causally necessary from any prior point in time, and inevitably must happen. Philosophers have suggested that this constitutes a meaningful constraint that we must be free of, to be “truly” free.

But is this a meaningful constraint? I think not. No one experiences reliable cause and effect as a constraint. In fact, we depend upon reliable causation to exercise every freedom that we enjoy. If gravity were not reliable we could not crawl , stand, or walk. Reliable biological mechanisms keep our hearts pumping and our brains thinking. Our occasionally reliable reasoning helps keep our lives ordered.

Most important, reliable causation is the source of our control over significant events that affect our lives. Knowing that a virus causes polio and that the body’s immune system can be primed to fight that virus through vaccination, has given us control over that disease and many others.

The philosopher’s notion that reliable causation is a boogeyman that robs us of any control over our own lives and choices is only a Halloween story. It is the hard determinist’s delusion.

About the Single Inevitable Future

We know that there will be only one actual future. How do we know? Because we only have a single past in which to put it. So, the key question is how will this single future come about?

Within the domain of human influence (things we can make happen if we choose to do so), the causal mechanism by which the single actual future comes about usually involves imagining several possible futures, and then choosing the one that we will actualize. 

We cannot build an actual bridge without first imagining a possible bridge. So, on our way to the single actual future, we typically consider many possible futures. For example, we may evaluate several different bridge designs before choosing what type of bridge we will build.  

In a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, there will be a single “actual” future, but there will also be many “possible” futures. The single actual future will exist in the real world. The multiple possible futures will exist within our imagination, that is where possibilities are born, that is where everything new is invented.

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