Free will and dualism

I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.