Free will

Apr. 1st, 2016 11:57 am
haggholm: (Default)

When people talk about free will, in the context of philosophy, without knowing the terminology of the field, they often seem to mean something like libertarian free will—a position not related (except etymologically) to political libertarianism: the belief that you “could have done otherwise”: your will is properly free if, and only if, having to re-make a prior decision under perfectly identical circumstances, you can choose to do otherwise the second time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that libertarian free will is logically coherent. Any event—decision or otherwise—is either deterministic or non-deterministic. If it is deterministic, this means that it is causally determined: the state of the universe around me, along with my disposition in the form of knowledge or beliefs, opinions, desires, goals, and so forth, fully determine what I will do. If you were omniscient, you could in principle predict my every action. On the other hand, if the decision is non-deterministic, this means that there is an element of randomness to it: to some degree, my decision is not determined by reality around me, nor by what I think or want. Intuitively, this does not seem to me like “free will”: in fact, as much as the deterministic versions limits freedom, the non-deterministic version limits will.

As far as I can tell, libertarian free will is supposed to occupy some magical middle ground that’s neither deterministic nor non-deterministic. This violates the law of the excluded middle—that is, it requires propositional logic to be wrong! This seems absurd and prima facie wrong, and even if it were true we could ipso facto not reason about it.

Note that, although the terms often arise in free will discussions, I have not hitherto said anything about materialism and dualism. This is because I honestly don’t see that it particularly matters. As it happens, I am a materialist: I think that our minds are what our brains do. But my argument about free will does not depend on this. If you want to suppose that your mind is really some sort of non-material spirit stuff, this does not affect the dilemma between (non-free) determinism and (non-willed) non-determinism. Dualism does not solve the problem of free will, because the problem is not about physical versus non-physical causation, but rather about the logic of causality itself. Christian apologists often argue quite vehemently about this, because metaphysical free will is essential to their theology; but their arguments seem largely to amount to an assault on physical causation without ever addressing the true problem—and as a rule they are quite fond of the laws of logic, so the excluded middle remains a major problem. Put bluntly, they want to absolve their God of responsibility for the things that we do out of “free will” in spite of his supposed omnipotence and omniscience. It does not work.

If a logical exposition exists to get out of this quandary, I've failed to find it and would be fascinated to hear it, but I'm not holding my breath. As far as I can tell, attempts to salvage libertarian free will are less clear-headed philosophy than desperate attempts to justify what we all intuitively feel in the face of what is logically true.


Furthermore, although I can readily see the objections to free will raised by the spectre of determinism, it's not that clear that they have all their apparent force when you look more closely. Normally, I think of a free choice as one where no one is constraining or coercing me. It can be deterministic. It can even be predictable, which is much stronger than merely deterministic: if I strongly prefer chocolate to vanilla ice cream, and you know I do, I can still freely choose to have chocolate every time. The fact that you know doesn't constrain me. I could choose vanilla if I wanted to—the fact that, given that I don't want to, I never do, is precisely what makes my decision free, even though it is an explicitly determined choice!

In fact, every good decision is deterministic. If I choose according to my best knowledge and current beliefs, and make the choice that best aligns with my dispositions and desires, in the sense of (so far as my knowledge can tell) being optimal toward achieving my goals, that is a deterministic choice: but if I had some greater metaphysical freedom, it's still the one I’d hope to make. A non-deterministic component can only serve to randomly push me away from this optimal choice. Is that more free? And is it truly willed if it is random?

I’m not terribly excited about the term compatibilism, but I suppose that in effect, I largely am a compatibilist, and my ἀπολογία can be summarised as: The alternative to deterministic free will entails a freedom to randomly act against my own interest, which perverts the word freedom into incoherence. As Dennett might say, that kind of free will worth having is deterministic.

Perhaps the free will problem is best addressed by Ordinary Language Philosophy:

Non-ordinary uses of language are thought to be behind much philosophical theorizing, according to Ordinary Language philosophy: particularly where a theory results in a view that conflicts with what might be ordinarily said of some situation. Such ‘philosophical’ uses of language, on this view, create the very philosophical problems they are employed to solve. This is often because, on the Ordinary Language view, they are not acknowledged as non-ordinary uses, and attempt to be passed-off as simply more precise (or ‘truer’) versions of the ordinary use of some expression – thus suggesting that the ordinary use of some expression is deficient in some way. But according to the Ordinary Language position, non-ordinary uses of expressions simply introduce new uses of expressions.

[Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

Maybe the fundamental problem of the free will debate is that it has developed a problematic concept of free will that wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have the discussion. In practice, determinism is perfectly compatible with every kind of freedom we care about or can measure; but in philosophy, philosophers and theologians have defined a problematic concept into being. In that case, we can explain it as being a matter of two different things: We do have free will, in the OLP sense, and this is compatible with determinism; but we do not have [libertarian] free-will—which, however, does not actually matter in reality.

haggholm: (Default)

I recently watched a video of a debate between famous apologist and Liar for Christ, Dr. William Lane Craig, and well-known cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Dr. Lawrence Krauss. Obviously all my sympathies lay with Dr. Krauss, so it was with some mortification that I watched him apparently just fail to understand Craig’s distinction between epistemic and ontological basis for moral behaviour.

Those terms weren’t used in the parts I saw, but here is how I understand it:

  • An epistemic claim would be of the nature If not for God or revealed truth, we could not know what is morally right or wrong.
  • An ontological claim is different and asserts that God is the basis, not for the knowledge of moral truth, but the existence of moral truth.

In other words, the epistemic claim is concerned with how we can know what is right and wrong, while the ontological claim deals with how there can (supposedly) be a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’.

Craig, for example, claims that everyone is designed to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong, and therefore does not claim that religion is epistemically necessary to assess moral propositions, but does claim that his god is ontologically necessary. This distinction is what Krauss loudly and repeatedly failed to appreciate.

That’s not to say that I think much of the argument itself. The standard objection is a chestnut that’s been around for well over two thousand years and never convincingly resolved: the Euthyphro Dilemma. Its modern formulation when addressing Christian dogma runs something like this?

  • Is God good because he does what is intrinsically good, or because what is good is defined by what God commands?
  • If the former, then there exists an objective moral truth outside of God, who is therefore not ontologically necessary.
  • If the latter, then “God is good” is a circular and hence meaningless claim, and in fact whatever God commanded would by definition be “good”, regardless of whether it resembles what we in actuality think of as good.

Craig is a firm believer in the latter option, and to his dubious credit he carries it all the way by affirming the so-called Divine Command Theory. According to DCT, if God says to kill every man, woman, child, and head of livestock in the land you invade (1 Samuel 15), then it’s right and morally good to do so; and Craig has consistently defended this view: The genocide described in the book of Samuel¹ was morally right. It was morally good to kill all those babies.

Personally, I find this view reprehensible if not downright monstrous. But there are further problems with this view that I don’t see brought up.


If God defines Good, he cannot be trusted

If whatever God wills is (by definition) good, then “good” is arbitrary (as is often pointed out). But this is not merely a problem for ontological grounding. Christian apologists like Craig argue that it’s not arbitrary, because to do other than what is in fact (as we instinctively see it) good is against God’s nature…but so what? On the view that good is defined by God’s will, there’s no real reason to suppose that it cannot change tomorrow. Craig would probably raise a lot of arguments to the effect that God has promised not to, it’s not in his nature, and so on; but how does he know that? Under DCT, it’s not wrong for God to deceive Craig about what his nature is: if he wants to, it’s good by definition. It’s not wrong for him to change his mind about what’s good: if he wants to change his mind, that’s good by definition. In fact, it’s rather Nineteen eighty-four-ish: It is wrong to kill people. It has always been wrong to kill people and always will be. It is good to kill Amalekites…


Craig fails to notice the beam in his own eye

But there’s a deeper yet much simpler problem with Craig’s view, which is this: He says that what God wills is by definition good, and that God has the right to determine this because he created the universe, owns us all, and has the right to do with us as he pleases. But this is a naked assertion. Craig claims that DCT provides an objective view of morality, meaning presumably one with no arbitrary propositions accepted axiomatically, and yet ultimately even his own moral view is arbitrary and axiomatic, too. When Krauss says it’s bad to cause suffering, Craig asks Why?—fair enough, and I fault Krauss for failing to understand this question: I think Craig is right when he implies that Krauss is relying on what amounts to an arbitrary axiom.² But Craig’s own argument is no better, because when he says that God’s will defines what is good, even someone who agrees with him might well ask Why? Craig will say it’s because God created and therefore owns the universe and everyone in it: to this I would retort Why does creating the universe give him the right to do what he wants with it? Craig spends a good deal of time insisting that you cannot get from a factual to a normative statement—you can’t get from an is to an ought—and then he blithely goes and does that very thing in the very same breath.


¹ Fortunately, it most likely never actually happened.

² Philosophically arbitrary—of course, it’s not arbitrary in terms of our neural wiring.

haggholm: (Default)

I won’t pretend to have an attempt at a full-fletched epistemology, but something I often ponder and would like to set in words for my own clarification is my opinion on what knowledge can be based on. As someone who occasionally gets into arguments over religion or philosophy, I consider it important to know what fundamental basis I am really attempting to argue from.


First, let us recognise that a superior epistemology should make as few assumptions as possible. If we are to reason, we must use logic, but logic is but a way of taking facts (premises) and figuring out what other facts (conclusions) are implied by them. It can’t introduce new knowledge per se, and while it can point out problematic premises by showing inconsistencies, it cannot supply correct ones. Thus on some level we have to simply assume some premises—as few as possible (the more we have, the more we risk error) and as safe and inarguable as possible.

To me, the most fundamental source of knowledge is and must be physical reality. This may sound uncontroversial or at least unsurprising coming from me, but let me clarify: I believe that physical reality must hold epistemological primacy even over logic (and its broader-scope cousin, mathematics). Logic is important and a critical tool for reason, but it follows from reality, not the other way around. (You might recognise this as the opposite of what the ancient Greek philosophers generally held.)

Some have held that perception of physical reality can’t be accepted as fundamental, because our senses are flawed. Certainly no one can prove to every pedant’s and solipsist’s satisfaction that we do not, for example, live in a computer simulation, or in Plato’s cave; that reality isn’t in fact with our perception of consistency an illusion. All these notions, though, seem to share in common the attribute that they are completely unproductive. If my mind is randomly recomposed moment by moment, with memories and perception of continuity mere illusions, then ipso facto I cannot effectively reason about anything.

If you tell me that I should trust in your words, or the words of some sacred writ, because my eyes and ears deceive me, I will respond that if my eyes and ears deceive me, I surely cannot trust words either written or spoken. If you tell me that I should believe in something or other because my ability to reason is limited and fallible, then why should I be convinced? If I find that argument convincing, I am ipso facto convinced by means of faulty reasoning.

No, surely to say anything meaningful about anything at all, we must accept that there is an external reality and that, for all their flaws, our senses and perceptions at least provide some kind of systematic picture thereof. It may not always be correct—in fact we know of lots of ways in which our perceptions often fail us—but if it is at least basically systematic (within the margins, as it were, of measurement error), then this gives us a chance to address the truth, aided by statistics and probability, augmenting our memories with records (so long as we can read them), our senses with instrumented perception (so long as we can read the dials with reasonable fidelity), our fallible reasoning with formal logic.

I believe that everyone (at any rate, anyone who is not insane) essentially believes this (in part because I believe that people who argue that reality is an illusion and our memories may well be recreated moment by moment are really just playing word-games, actually living their lives quite in accordance with conventional notions of continuity and cause-and-effect). Even people who relegate empiricism to a distinctly secondary position after, say, faith in some religious dogma still accept this, whether they admit it or not. Without accepting the testimony of their senses, they wouldn’t have any cause to know that any scripture exists or what it says.


Very well, so we accept a sort of basic empiricism: The world exists, and our senses report on it, if not perfectly then at least systematically so that we can by dint of intellectual effort untangle systematic errors and gain a clearer picture. What else do we need? Until recently I should have said logic—an argument needs premises and a valid formulation; empiricism gives us premises; logic provides the formulation; ergo we need both.

However, as my second point, I believe that logic is secondary to physical reality and need not be taken as a fundamental.

Perhaps my biggest light-bulb moment in formulating this thought was rendering explicit the fairly obvious observation that the logical syllogism is really no more than a mathematical restatement of the physical principle of cause and effect.

logicformal logicempiricism
if A, then BABA is observed always to cause B
A [is true]AA happened
therefore B [is true]Btherefore B happened

In other words, I conclude that logic is simply a description of cause and effect, just as F=(m₁×m₂)/G is a description of (Newtonian) gravity, rather than itself (qua formula or idea) anything fundamental. Reality would go on as usual even if nothing within it had any concept of logic. However, if reality did not proceed according to the laws of cause and effect, there could be no logic: If we existed, we should have nothing to base it upon, nor would it be applicable to anything. It could at best be a self-consistent but meaningless system of symbol manipulation.


Third and finally, I believe that we need nothing else at the very bottom of our epistemology. There is reality. It is necessary (because without observation of reality there can be no knowledge); it is also sufficient. Observing reality naturally generates the laws of logic, which however complicated they get ultimately flow from the basic syllogism, which is itself a statement of the empirically observed principles of cause and effect.

Of course any meaningful argument about anything whatsoever, unless it be epistemology itself, is naturally going to invoke much higher-level principles. The rules of logics are the atoms of arguments, syllogisms the molecules; only when we care about the subatomic do we need to bother to point out that the logic-atoms are really made up of empirical nucleons. However, I am aware of no good reason why I should take seriously any argument that does not render down into this empirical nucleon soup if sufficiently picked apart.


I don’t pretend to be able to reduce most arguments to their nuclear details, but this does not mean that I abandon the idea. I don’t pretend to be able to explain every minute detail of a burning match down to the level of atomic interactions and changes in valence electron layers, either—this does not reduce my confidence that the standard model of physics is in principle perfectly capable of explaining that burning match without having to involve phlogistons. If someone attempted to convince me of the reality of phlogistons, my ignorance of details would not be sufficient grounds for me to accept it: They should have to directly demonstrate the reality of phlogistons, or that my physical theory is in principle insufficient to explain fire.

Similarly, i you introduce any other principle into an argument—faith, for instance, or curious notions such as epistemological relativism—I shall regard any such principle as a phlogiston, whose existance and relevance you shall have to substantiate before I take any part of your argument seriously. Unless you can do that, explain yourself in terms of observable reality, or be dismissed.


My earlier post, Science and epistemology, contained the germs of this idea. In How I try to think, and how I try not to I muse on how to apply the idea, and common pitfalls to avoid.

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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