I recently read Steven Landsburg’s interesting but often befuddled book, The Big Questions. It’s a fun book because its view is so vast and its conclusions so sweeping. He tries to tackle basic questions of the universe in 200 pages or so, and inevitably stumbles many times. I’ll try to present a few problems I noticed, and offer alternative possibilities. In this post I’ll challenge Landsburg on his defense of free will.
In his first chapter, Landsburg tries to rid us of our doubts about free will once and for all. “No college sophomore,” he writes, “has ever turned in a paper denying the existence of free will without first choosing to do so…. You simply cannot be a conscious human being without making choices all the time.” Though he admits that our actions are all initially determined, and that “if you know the state of a human being and his surroundings on Monday and have sufficient computational power, you can predict with certainty the actions of that human being next Friday…”, he still believes that the fact that our will has an effect on the world is sufficient to demonstrate our free will. Indeed, paraphrasing Robert Nozick he writes, “Determinism is true but thermostats can still control the temperature…. Likewise, determinism is true but you can still control your life.” And for those who think that the ultimate determined nature of this will quashes its claim to freedom, he dismisses them out of hand:
What caused your decision to get drunk and watch Mystery Science Theater the night before your philosophy finial? Free will. An insane person might object that free will can’t be it at all, because free will is just a shorthand term for an indescribably complex process involving trillions of neurons, which in turn can be described in terms of quadrillions of atoms… So what? You still have free will, and you know it.
Though he doesn’t cite him, this is all in the tradition of David Hume, who in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding posited that the entire free will debate was a semantic one, simply confused by what we meant by liberty. “By liberty… we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will, that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may.” Under this definition, free will could be fully determined and remain free.
John Searle in Freedom and Neurobiology, however, disagrees. By freedom we don’t mean merely that our decisions have an effect on the world and are made without overt coercion, but rather “The thesis of free will asserts that some actions are not preceded by sufficient causal conditions,” because determinism clearly “asserts that all actions are preceded by sufficient causal conditions that determine them,” these positions are in absolute disagreement. When we get drunk and watch Mystery Science Theater the night before our philosophy final (an example which says more about Steven Landsburg than free will, by the way) does our having made that choice matter more than the fact that we could not have made another? Can we really call it free?
Searle offers a possible way to grant us free will. His primary piece of evidence for free will is the feeling we experience when “I do not sense the antecedent causes of my action in the form of reasons, such as beliefs and desires, as setting causally sufficient conditions for the action… I sense alternative courses of action open to me.” But how is this “gap” between conditions and outcomes possible? Unfortunately, the science here is murky and Searle has to take to hand-waving. The only way to allow for indeterminism is to rely on quantum mechanics, and so Searle argues that if we are to believe our senses then we must believe that quantum mechanics is somehow allowing indeterminate rationality to act in the gap. How… well, he doesn’t say.
My essay on Hume and free will here.