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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

free will, revisited

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I’ve written about free will before, here , and especially here, (the commentary at the end is particularly interesting, IMHO), and probably in other posts as well, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe it’s time for a refresher (though, if I say so myself, those earlier posts stand up pretty well).

I first became acquainted with and absorbed in the ‘philosophical’ argy-bargy about free will way back in the seventies, when I read Free Will and Determinism, a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky. It was published in 1966, and is, amazingly (since I’ve moved house about 50 times), still in my possession. Glancing through it again now brings back memories, but more importantly, the arguments, which mostly favour compatibilism, aka soft determinism, seem both naive and somewhat arrogant, if that’s the word. That is, they’re mostly variants of ‘of course we have free will – we display it in every decision we make – but many of us find it hard to present a rational explanation of it, so I’ll do it for you’. Only one philosopher, from memory, John Hospers, argued for ‘hard determinism’, that’s to say, for the absence of free will. And though I found his argument a bit clunky (it was largely based on Freudian and neo-Freudian psychology), it was the only one that really stuck in my mind, though I didn’t quite want to be convinced.

In more recent years, after reading Sam Harris’ short book on free will, and Robert Sapolsky’s treatment of the issue towards the end of his monumental book Behave, I’ve felt as if the scales have dropped from my eyes. Another factor I should mention was a talk I gave to the SA Humanist Society a few years ago on the subject, which didn’t quite go all the way on ‘no free will’, and a pointed question from one of the attendees left me floundering for a response. It was likely that experience that made me feel the need to revisit the issue more comprehensively. So, for memory lane’s sake, I’m going to reread these old essays and then comment on them. And hopefully I’ll be able to slip in a bonobo mention along the way!

I should mention, as Sapolsky does in Behave, that neurology has come a long way since the 1970s. More papers have been published in the field in the first two decades of the 21st century than in all the centuries before, which is hardly surprising. With this, and our greater understanding of genetics, epigenetics. developmental psychology and other fields relevant to the topic, it will behoove me to be fair to the thinking of intellectuals writing a number of generations before the present. However, I’m not interested in giving a historical account – how Cicero, or Augustine of Hippo, or Spinoza, or John Stuart Mill conceptualised the problem was very much a product of the zeitgeist of their era, combined with their unique gifts. The era I live in, in the particularly WEIRD country (Australia) that is my home, religion is fast receding, and the sciences of neurophysiology, endocrinology, genetics and primatology, among others, have revolutionised our understanding of what it is to be human, or sentient, or simply alive. And they help us to understand our uniquely determined situation and actions.

So let me begin with Berofsky’s introduction, in which he raises a ‘problem’ with determinism:

The fact that classical mechanics did not turn out to be the universal science of human nature suggests that contemporary proponents of determinism do not ally themselves to this particular theory. Many ally themselves to no particular theory at all, but try to define determinism in such a way that its rejection is not necessitated by the rejection of any particular scientific theory.

This takes us back to the effect upon the general public of such notions as ‘quantum indeterminacy’ and its manipulation by pedlars of ‘quantum woo’ (for example, The tao of physics, by Fritjof Capra, which I haven’t read). But clearly, however we might understand quantum superposition and action-at-a-distance, they have no effect at the macro level of brain development, genetic inheritance and the like, and they certainly can’t be used to defend the concept of free will. The ‘no free will’ argument does rely on determining factors, and openly so. Our genetic inheritance, the time and place of our birth, our family circumstances, our ethnicity, our diet, these are among many influences that we don’t see as ‘theoretical’, but factual.

Berofsky goes on to worry over types of causes and causal laws in what seems to me a rather fruitless ‘philosophical’ way.

A determinist, then, is a person who believes that all events (facts, states) are lawful in the sense, roughly, that for event e, there is a distinct event plus a (causal) law which asserts, ‘Whenever d, then e’.

The extremely general or universal character of this thesis has raised many questions, some of which concern the status of the thesis. Some have held the position as a necessary or a priori truth about the world. Others have insisted that determinism is itself a scientific theory, but much more general than most other scientific theories.

As you can imagine, none of this is of any concern to a working neurologist, biochemist or primatologist. In trying to determine how oxytocin levels affect behaviour in certain subjects, for example, they won’t be reflecting on a priori truths or causal laws, they’ll be looking at all the other possible confounding and co-determining factors that might contribute to the behaviour. It seems to me that traditional philosophical language is getting in the way here of attributing effects to causes, however partially.

Berofsky points out, in the name of some philosophers, that determinism isn’t a scientific theory in that it’s essentially unfalsifiable (my language, not his), as it can always be claimed that some so far undiscovered causal factor has contributed to the behaviour or effect. But scientists don’t consider determinism to be a theory, but rather the sine qua non of scientific practice, indeed of everyday life. We live in a world of becauses,  we eat because we’re hungry/it’s tasty/it’s healthy/it reminds us of childhood, etc. We don’t think like this in terms of laws. We needn’t think of it at all, just as a dog wags her tail when she sees her owner after a long absence (or not, if he’s also her abuser).

So much for determinism, over which too much verbiage has been employed. The real issue that exercises most people is free will, freedom, or agency. Here’s how Berofsky introduces the subject:

It has been maintained that if an action is determined, then the person was not performing the action of his own free will. For surely, it is argued, if the antecedent conditions are such that they uniquely determine by law the ensuing result (the action), then it was not within the power of the person to do otherwise. And a person doesfreely if, and only if, he could have done something other than A. Let us call this position ‘incompatibilism’. Incompatibilists usually conclude as well that if a person’s action is determined, then he is not morally responsible for having done it, since acting freely is a necessary condition of being morally responsible for the action.

This is a long-winded, i.e. typically philosophical way of putting the ‘no free will’ argument, which is usually countered by an ‘of course I could’ve done otherwise’ response, and the accusation that determinists are not just kill-joys but kill-freedoms. Presumably this would be a ‘compatibilist’ response, and many find it the only common-sense response, if we want to view ourselves as anything other than automatons.

But there are obvious problems with compatibilism, and here’s my ‘death by a thousand cuts’ response. There are a great many Big Things in our life about which we, indisputably, have no choice. No person, living or dead, got to choose the time and place of their birth, or conception. No person got to choose their parents, or their genetic inheritance. They had no choice as to how their brain, limbs, organs and so forth grew and developed whilst in the womb. So, no freedom of choice up to that time. When, then, did this freedom begin? The compatibilist would presumably argue – ‘when we make our own observations and inferences, which starts to happen more frequently as we grow’. And there would be much hand-waving about when this gradually starts to happen, until we’re our own autonomous selves, who could’ve done otherwise. And here we get to the response of Sam Harris and others, that this ‘self’ is a myth. I would put it differently, that the self is a useful marker for each person and their individuality. These selves are all determined, but they’re each uniquely determined, and at least this uniqueness is something we can salvage from the firm grip of determinism. What is mythical about the self is its self-determined nature.

As Berofsky puts it, guilt and remorse are strong indications, for compatibilists, that free will exists. I would add regret to those feelings, and I would admit, as does Sapolsky, that these strong, sometimes overwhelming feelings, based largely on the idea that we should have done otherwise, are our strongest arguments for rejecting the no free will position.

This issue of guilt needs to be looked at more closely, since our whole legal system is based on questions of guilt or innocence. I’ll reserve that for next time.


Bernard Berofsky, ed. Free will and determinism, 1966

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2017

Sam Harris, Free will, 2012

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2023 at 8:40 pm

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