We Don’t Have Free Will. Free Will Has Us!

When it comes to the topic of Free Will, as usual Samuel Johnson said it best: “all theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” Skeptics of the concept rightfully demand that all events have a cause, and thus a person’s actions are not exempt but must have had a prior cause, which had a prior cause, and so forth. It is impossible to be untethered from the physical world and the laws that inhere therein. This is why all theory is against Free Will; whenever we theorize we make use of causal reasoning, a thinking process that necessarily takes the skeptic’s demand that everything have a cause as an axiom. None of these skeptics, however, would argue that they don’t have an experience of Free Will, but disregard it in one of two ways (or both): 1) this “feeling” or “experience” is somehow a “trick” that communicates false information, and 2) this “feeling” or “experience” is an epiphenomenon of the processes of the brain; a sort of useless byproduct much akin to a shadow. This second move attempts to cut a compatabalist off at his knees, as he holds that as long as our mind is one cause in the causal chain leading to action, then we can be responsible for our actions. I will endeavor to show that both of these attitudes towards the experience of Free Will are in error and will espouse a potentially novel angle on the topic, which I have not yet found elsewhere but my own notes. This will be a compatabilist account of Free Will that does not defend the Scholastic notion of a casa sui or uncaused-cause, but which still claims that human beings act with a greater amount of freedom than any other known “thing” in existence; enough to justify the use of the term Free Will, despite its disreputable past.

For skeptics of the first variety above, the experience of Free Will must be a deception. So what does this experience communicate that is apparently untenable? Quite simply, it communicates that our physical organism performed some action or displayed some behavior that we could anticipate, could weigh against alternative actions and behaviors, and which, upon later reflection, we assent to have ratified at the time.  This is to be contrasted with a violent and uncontrollable hiccup, which forced itself from our body without our anticipating it, weighing it against alternatives (as we had no alternatives), or ratifying it at the time. This seems to be a completely sound distinction between two very different types of actions and behaviors, a distinction that is faithfully communicated by the feeling of Free Will. Thus, the experience of free will must be communicating something else as well for the skeptics to have a case. The feeling does communicate that because deliberation was possible before the action took place, that this action could have been avoided by some means up until the action commenced. This indeed seems to be the crux of the case, as the skeptic might claim, via some formulation of Determinism or other, that we in fact could not have avoided the action that we took. Regardless of the Determinism being employed, it ultimately will posit that one’s stock repertoire of desires was never a matter of one’s deliberation or choice, and thus the respective weights of each desire (with respect to every other desire in the will) would determine the outcome of any future deliberation. Though we feel as though we were in control of the deliberation and decision making, ultimately those desires were in control, whether these be commanded by the genome (ala Genetic or Biological Determinism), commanded by the very laws of physics (ala Causal or Physical Determinism), commanded by the laws of our mind (ala Psychological, Linguistic, or Logical Determinism), or commanded by the environment (ala Environmental, Cultural, or Behavioral Determinism). The point is, that these desires or whatever commands them ultimately controls the outcome, not a conscious person, an agent, or whatever part of the biological organism that experiences the subjective feeling of freedom and responsibility. The problem with this line of reasoning is that causality can’t admit of any “ultimate cause,” because ultimate would here imply that it bears all of the responsibility, forces everything else to happen, and yet doesn’t itself have a cause. If it did have a cause, it would cease to be the ultimate, but transfer this title to its predecessor, and so on ad infinitum. If it had no cause it would thus be a causa sui, which is impossible given the axiom of causality (that every cause has an effect and vice verse). Thus, the skeptic, disarmed of his ultimate cause, must make some kind of claim about why one’s instincts, or genetics, or environment, or the laws of physics (as proximate cause) force your actions more than that conscious part of your organism that experiences the subjective feeling of freedom. This would turn that conscious part into a liar and vindicate the skeptic. The compatabalist takes this move to be placing him on the horns of a false dilemma, because the mind is a causally efficacious part of the universe that in fact is the product of evolution, etc, but is nevertheless something else besides (see Hofstadter’s “GEB” or “I Am A Strange Loop,” for example). However, one way of demonstrating the skeptics’ claim is to posit the second kind of skeptical attack noted above: to deny that consciousness has any causal power, or force, and is epiphenomenal in nature.

An epiphenomenon is an idea that comes in strong and week varieties. The strong variety is something that has a physical cause, but does not in turn cause anything else. However, the axiom of causality disqualifies this variety from being possible, because it is impossible to be untethered from the physical world in either direction (to have no cause, or to have no effects). This is why a “shadow” is not properly a “thing,” but a reified concept that takes the place of real things and states of being. Moreover, the very point that we can discuss the subjective feeling of freedom means that this feeling has at least changed the possible things we can talk and argue about. Therefore, it must have some effects and cannot be a strong epiphenomenon. However, the skeptic could rely on the weak variety and argue that it does have effects, but that these in turn do not influence any action or behavior. Therefore, these effects are for all practical purposes relating to the Free Will debate moot and superfluous. He would be hard pressed to show how the subjective feeling of freedom plays no role or fails to influence any behavior if we can in fact argue about this feeling, but perhaps the skeptic will claim that robots could be programmed to talk about a feeling which they don’t even have, let alone a feeling that influences the conversation. It is precisely at this point in the argument that a rather common response to such Free Will skepticism provides a rather surprising refutation.

When most people are cornered by a Free Will skeptic and feel their personal autonomy challenged, they will produce some random gesticulation or bizarre noise to demonstrate their freedom. The skeptic, of course, explains how this seemingly random demonstration was the product of innumerable past physical causes, which he is of course right to point out. What he misses, however, is that the Free Will advocate has just demonstrated a behavioral effect stemming from their subjective experience of freedom, which disqualifies the latter from being a soft epiphenomenon. That conscious, subjective feeling of freedom just influenced the motions of the body to perform an “act of pseudo-randomness,” to use Dennet’s term. Obviously the person in question had to have some idea of what kind of action usually causes this feeling of freedom in order to produce a prototypical example of one, and thus the subjective feelings of freedom in the past influenced his present actions though his episodic memory. The skeptic might object that they produced this demonstration purely because of a desire that resides in their will without their having any say in the matter, thus making the feeling a lie. They have a desire to win the argument (ineradicable confirmation bias), true. They have a desire to have their subjective experience of the world correlate with reality, true. Most importantly, however, they have a desire to be free and feel that way! The acte gratuit, or motiveless, spontaneous choice discussed by the existentialists is not, in fact, “motiveless,” but motivated instead by a will-to-freedom that only appears “motiveless” because it can be attached to any physically possible action–it is sort of “end”-less, not “motiveless.” The “affect” or “reward” feeling that accompanies this drive is not irrelevant or epiphenomenal any more than the “reward” feeling we get from sex is irrelevant to the actions we take regarding our sex-drive, or the reward feeling of eating calorie-rich foods to our eating habits. The subjective feeling of freedom is not lying because it never insinuated that the conscious person chose to have the desires that they do, or chose their relative weights. This feeling, instead, is simply notifying the person as to whether the choice was anticipated, weighed, and issued from the will. The fact which the skeptic is relying on here (that we didn’t choose our set of desires) in fact guarantees the truth of our feelings of free will, because a desire for freedom is different than any other desire in the will. Like all the others it vies for dominance and competes, but its demands, the actions or behaviors that it forces us to do, are in fact infinite in quantity and quality. This is in contrast to our desire to eat, which motivates a much more limited range of possible actions. Not only can the desire for freedom be attached to literally any action, but it is also the most powerful drive in the will (carries the most “weight”) as it can trump any other desire. Think about it. Human beings can abstain from sex indefinitely. Human beings can calmly perform Sepuku. Human beings can at some time or other defy every other self-interested desire in the will. What more freedom could we possibly be asking for? In this sense, I would suggest that we (the conscious person) don’t have Free Will, but Free Will has us! That is, this desire for freedom, the most powerful human “instinct” or drive, has a conscious person that it can direct to ensure that it is fully satisfied, much the same way that the mating instinct has a conscious ego to do the information processing necessary to secure a mate and perform coitus. This is the same basic thought as the following from David Hume:  “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” The traditional conception of Free Will had “Reason” controlling “the passions,” which was not entirely wrong. In fact, “Reason” (the conscious ego or person) can only pit opposing passions against each other, and is just a “slave” always to the most powerful/weighty one. However, if the most powerful and weighty desire in the human will is an amorphous, undefined desire for freedom, then we have a wild-card desire in the drivers seat, which though determined by innumerable past causes, is by that precise virtue guaranteed to afford Reason the means to compete with any other passion in the will and most importantly to win!

The very fact that we can worry about our metaphysical free will, that we are threatened by Determinism or Fatalism, demonstrates that we care about our metaphysical freedom and that this profound desire to be metaphysically free in deed has powerful effects on our actions. Now, the burden of proof still remains on my shoulders to demonstrate that this desire is the hegemon of our passions. Obviously it won’t do to point out that our society’s system of punishment is to imprison criminals, because any criminal would prefer incarceration to torture. No, it is not literal imprisonment which is the opposite of the freedom of which I speak. The will-to-freedom that I refer to must explain why priests can remain celibate, why warriors can not just sacrifice themselves for a cause, but can even commit Sepuku! If the Determinists are right and we are just calculating machines engineered by some process of natural selection to fulfill desires and pass on genes, how could we possibly remain celibate or calmly open our stomachs with a blade? The Determinist is of course right, for the most part, but he is in error when he uses the word just, for human beings are something else besides. Traditional compatibalists seem content to show that consciousness is causally efficacious, defeat epiphenomenalism (bravo to Dan Dennet and his gremlins), and proclaim victory. However, I think that the existential thinkers gave us a new way of looking at the will, gave us an understanding of our will-to-freedom, which is a potent ally in this Free Will debate. I sincerely hope that it will not be considered a cop-out to finish here and refer the reader to a paper entitled “Schopenhauer Redux,” which will be completed soon and made available on this blog (I preemptively apologize for the excessive, 60-page length). For those who want a preview, refer perhaps to the wiki on Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death.”

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