Debating Free Will

I’ve been involved, in my usual obsessive and annoying way, in a discussion about free will on Quora. I think it has yielded some good thoughts, and I will share my latest comment below. But the whole thread is worth a read….

(2) Scott Swigart’s answer to Does free will exist? – Quora.

Here’s my latest:

I wasn’t actually providing evidence of free will, I was asking you to explain how a decision that involves human conscious intervention in a chemical process is deterministic. Any you’ve answered. Let’s look at the answer….

The nut of your response is “it is just a decision like any other [decision].” I think you make two mistakes with this argument — first, you conflate the definition of “decision” with the “result of a chemical process.” Outwardly, this isn’t new information; you said we are “just chemistry.” But is is illuminating of the pervasiveness of mechanistic explanations of life. You are treating consciousness as just an algorithm, which it is not — if there is one thing that scientists agree on, it is that they don’t agree what consciousness is. It is not just an algorithm — I’ll cite the work of cognitive scientist David Chalmers, one of the leading thinkers about the question, and leave it at that: “….the hard problem [of conscious experience] is hard precisely because it is not a problem about the performance of functions. The problem persists even when the performance of all of the relevant functions is explained.”

Now, you may simply disagree that consciousness is different than the result of an algorithm, but the question remains, as you put it a couple responses back, one of “free will as it relates to consciousness.” You have not distinguished what you believe consciousness is, so your argument isn’t complete or persuasive. Rather, you’ve broken the history of the decision into a set of inputs and extended the metaphor of mind-as-computer by citing 1.) Previous experience, 2.) Genetics, and 3.) Sensory input at the time of the decision. Only the last of these is potentially deterministic, and only if you rely on reflexes rather than reflective thought to make the decision.

Previous experience is not deterministic. Why? It is unreliable. Unreliable data leaves a decision as to what to credit as reliable information about one’s past to a process separate from the previous experience itself. Because it appeals to factors external to the data itself, it is not deterministic. Something enters into the process, what we refer to as consciousness.

Genetics is probabilistic but not deterministic. In the context of deciding to take a drug, it is not in any way directly directly controlling the decision. One may be risk averse or adventurous, but these are psychological states that are merely influenced by genetic inputs, but previous experience, which we’ve seen, isn’t deterministic, is a substantially greater factor in personality traits that may influence a decision than genetics.

These critiques of your answer provide ample theoretical room for free will. It is not my mission to prove free will, only to live as though I have it. Everyone needs to make their own decisions about this question.

The other flaw in your argument stems from the source of your conviction that there is no free will, the work of Sam Harris, whom you’ve cited as providing proof that free will is not a factor in human decisions. Mr. Harris and I are both atheists, but he’s making an effort to separate himself from a question raised in the Middle Ages in order to distinguish himself from the Christian philosophers who first identified the problem of free will. I think, on the contrary, that the identification of the probelm was the result of intellectual progress that yielded the problem of free will; it was simply cast in the context of Christian thought because of concerns about a particular heresy, Pelagianism. The arguments that produced the distinction of free will in choosing to believe in God were cast in some goofy mystical ways, but that doesn’t mean the resulting problem — one that remains actively debated — isn’t valid: the problem of free will, which is the problem of living with consciousness. In some sense, the problem of free will evolved as we became something utterly unlike anything else on the planet — fully conscious beings. There are debates about when this happened, and some theorists argue it didn’t happen until the past few centuries. I don’t know when we acheived this distinction, but I recognize the importance of this distinction.

And here is where we return to your assertion that the decision to take a drug and alter one’s chemistry is “just a decision like any other.” A conscious decision is very different than the autonomic processes that produce life, and the two can co-exist in the same system. Awareness of and consciousness of something are two fundamentally different experiences. We humans are aware of things that other animals or any organism with physical awareness of the environment are, but we are also able to do something that has not been identified in any other species, use conscious thought as a tool. We can hold a thought, or diametrically opposed thoughts, in our minds while simultaneously processing an immense amount of environmental information necessary to remaining alive while exploring those ideas. This is not a “ghost” or something separate from mind doing the thinking, it is us, our brains and bodies and the experience of consciousness itself, which have the ability to make independent (non-determnistic) decisions. Not all decisions are the same, and consciousness isn’t a zero-sum game in which every decision has to exceed the limits of determinism in order to preserve the notion of free will.

Now, if you want to argue that the universe, DNA and history are all forces that militated to produce a life form capable of independent conscious thought, I’d argue that the you’re engaging in a kind of mysticism, suggesting that there is a maker of the system — I don’t think you are making that argument, but it is the traditional claim that a first mover is responsible for the apparently intelligible state of the world. I claim we are responsible for the particular state of the lifeworlds in which we live.

If you are saying that all human action is an “accident,” I’d argue you are not giving any credit for progress to the species that makes progress, and denigrating conscious experience before it’s been explained. That would be jumping the gun, as well as dismissing the seriousness of the question of responsibility for our actions, which is the more important ethical question than simply assuming we are machinistic victims of circumstance. I am not suggesting we skip over the hard problem of consciousness to debate ethics, by the way, I am simply saying there are other questions. Questions we pursue because we have the free will to do so.

I’ll be happy to continue the discussion, but thank you for answering my question so patiently.