Dreaming my way in
As of late, I’ve been getting a lot better at lucid dreaming. Essentially I use the Mnemonic-Initiated Lucid Dreaming technique, where I try to focus on sign-posts that indicate I’m dreaming. Before I feel myself fall asleep, I put a heavy focus on lucid dreaming once I find a pattern of thought or topic that I recognize or target in my waking state. As an example, last night I woke up with a vague sense of having dreamed about free will, so before I went back to sleep, I paid special attention to this subject with the intent of triggering a lucid dream as soon as it came upon me in my sleep.
It worked quite successfully, perhaps the most success. Of course, the mind can work in a rather peculiar fashion when we’re dreaming, so it’s important to re-investigate what we were dreaming of to know if there’s anything of any use that was discovered.
I ran across quite a train of thoughts in my mind last night, and, as I’ve already suggested, it centered around the notion of free will. This is an interesting philosophical topic to me, a topic on which I’ve spent a great deal of energy attempting to understand more clearly which arguments are well-reasoned and which ones are wishful thinking.
What are the arguments?
It became clear to me about 6 months ago that determinism poses a real challenge to free will. Determinism is the view that everything that has happened or is going to happen was determined by a causal chain of prior events. So if I decide to have a glass of milk, a determinist argues that I could only have chosen that option given my past experiences.
Our common notion of free will, on the other hand, says that we make choices all the time which are completely of our own volition and are in no way determined. From these two views, we have a variety of philosophical positions:
– Incompatible determinist: free will and determinism are not compatible, and determinism is true
– Incompatible libertarian: the two are not compatible, and free will is true
– Compatibilism: the two can jive together
I’ll present a bit of a jumbled version of my argument, but hopefully it will make some sense.
Determinism vs indeterminism
Beginning with this view of determinism, I ask in what way would it make sense for our actions to NOT be determined. When I “choose” to drink a glass of milk, it is for a variety of reasons. Maybe I was just thirsty and wanted to try something new, maybe I’ve had milk regularly for years andn enjoy it more than other drinks, and maybe I felt the milk would go more appropriately with the toast I was about to have. A person arguing for some vague sense of free will (or, more precisely, that the world is indeterminate) would then respond that you could have chosen anything else, and it is this objection I want to address first.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume spotted what is wrong with this argument a few centuries ago. The indeterminist is saying “You made choice A, when you could have made choice B.” A determinist replies that this sort of rationalization only arises by positing that you were someone different at the time you made your choice than the person you really were. So what the indeterminist is really saying is as follows:
“If I were someone different at the time of the decision, I would have chosen differently.”
Undoubtedly this is true, but it doesn’t escape determinism. The simple fact is that you weren’t someone different at the time, which is why you chose what you did. Only because of all your past experiences, and your current situtation, did you choose what you did. So, by my light, I would say that determinism appears to be true.
What does “free will” really mean, and can it be compatible?
To look at this a little further, though, we need to carefully analyze precisely what we mean by free will. Again, the argument typically goes that the world is indeterminate and therefore we have free will (or vice-versa). I ask this question: if our actions are not determined by a causal chain of past events, how is it that we make our decisions? A simplistic way of looking at it: if we have no reasons or experience to prefer one option over another, what is left? The answer, typically, is chance, but it is unclear to me how this is any closer to the free will we’re seeking to establish. If what we end up deciding is indeed random, in what way can we say that we’ve really made our own decision? Indeed, all that happened was we rolled the intellectual dice and ended up with a particular outcome over which we had no control. It seems clear to me that this sort of contra-causal (ie. without cause or against cause) free will is basically non-sensical.
Is there any sense, then, in which we could say that we do have free will? The only meaningful way in which I can define free will, in light of our previous inquiries, is that free will is having the ability to follow through in the way that has been predetermined without coercion from an external source. In other words, there is no sort of malignant deity or something to that effect that impinges on our making choices based on our causal chain of experience. If this is how we define free will, then I would consider myself a compatibilist. Any other definition of free will is, to me, a complete non-starter, and would leave me in the position of an incompatiblist determinist (that is, I side with determinism and find it incompatible with this definition of free will).
The case still unclear
Certainly there are some challenges to this position, beginning with determinism. We now know that the microscopic world is a quantum one, where the relationship between cause and effect begins to weaken and there is a high degree of randomness that takes place. In physics, we have seen that, despite this quantum randomness at the microscopic level, there is still a great deal of regularity at the macroscopic level. We haven’t discarded Newtonian mechanics at the macroscopic level just because we’ve learned quantum mechanics at the microscopic level. So this quantum challenge was typically written off as something that really only applies at small scales.
This issue is further complicated by the growth of neuroscience, or science of the brain. Earlier this year, an article in the Journal of the American Psychological Society showed that we believed to have made a conscious decision after the decision had already been made. In other words, the decision may have occurred at a sub-conscious level, then been artifically reflected as a conscious decision. Though the mechanism of this is not yet understood, it does raise serious questions about whether or not we could really say that we’re exercising free will.
Countering such evidence, though, was a paper in 2006 from the Journal of Integrative Neuroscience. Edwin Lewis and Ronald MacGregor argued that determinism, particularly in the brain, was a faith-based position. It seems unclear to me which analysis will ultimately hold true. Perhaps the world is indeterministic AND we don’t have any free will.
Relation to criminal justice
One of the reasons why I got so heavily interested in the free will vs determinism argument is that it has a very real impact on criminal justice. If, as a determinist would argue, our actions are completely caused by other factors (such as our past experiences, our environment, our genetics), then we may need to re-evaluate the way in which criminals are charged. Going back to an argument from lawyer Clarence Darrow in 1924, who was defending two young men convicted of murder against a 14 year old:
For over twelve hours Darrow reminded Judge Caverly of the defendants’ youth, genetic inheritance, surging sexual impulses, and the many external influences that had led them to the commission of their crime. Never before or since the Leopold and Loeb trial has the deterministic universe, this life of “a series of infinite chances”, been so clearly made the basis of a criminal defense. In pleading for Loeb’s life Darrow argued, ” Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we only play our parts. In the words of old Omar Khayyam, we are only Impotent pieces in the game He plays Upon this checkerboard of nights and days, Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays, And one by one back in the closet lays. What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother….All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay.”
The question is this: if we are not the ultimate cause of our actions, can we be held responsible for them? Many argue that, in light of determinism, we would not be able to hold anyone accountable for their actions and, thus, we would be permitting a new society of decadent violence protected under the guise of determinism. No crime, no matter how offensive, would be deserving of a punishment since there was no act of volition. Indeed, the “intent” of an action is of key importance in the courts.
My position is, however, a little bit different. Given the arguments for determinism, I think it undoubtedly is important to focus our legal spotlight on rehabilitation, not retribution. Our goal as a society should be to change the environment and circumstances under which criminals come to be so as to take a proactive approach against crime, rather than a reactive approach involving punishment.
With that said, there is still a good reason for having retributive sentences: they act as a deterrent. Take, for example, the crime of murder: one of the mitigating factors in preventing someone from murdering is their understanding that they will be jailed for life (potentially) for what they are about to do. If we remove such penalties, that is just one less obstacle in the causal chain leading to murder. For this reason, I think keeping lengthy sentences for a crime like murder is completely justified.
Relation to Theology
The question of free will and determinism is, of course, tremendously important to religion. In Christian theology in particular, the presumption of free will in humans is an especially frequent counter to many objections against the faith. Take, for example, the Problem of Evil, which can be broken down into a number of different categories.
The Logical Problem of Evil says that there is something logically inconsistent in the notion that there is a omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being who creates a world where evil occurs. The typical counter from Christian apologists is that there is no logical contradiction here; some evil may have been necessary to achieve other goals (like greater spiritual development).
This leads to the Empirical Problem of Evil. The argument here is not that there needn’t be any evil at all, but that there need not be so much. As far as I’m aware, there is no sufficient counter-argument to this point, and it would be hard to develop one. This argument relies on a largely subjective notion of what is enough evil, and what is too much evil, and thus is not the strongest (but likely the least controversial) tack to take.
Within these two categories, the type of evil can be broken down into yet another two categories. First, we have the Problem of Human Evil. Humans certainly encounter a great number of hardships, and from the religious perspective (in particular, the Christian perspective), this suffering could be the fault of the person experiencing it: they’ve failed to live a good life by their own hands. Or this suffering could come from any other human who likewise is failing to live a righteous life. The question from the non-religious is this: if god has all the qualities claimed of him, why can’t he prevent us from doing evil to each other? The answer from the Christian apologist is a simple one: god was incredibly kind in giving us free will, and evil only arises from us misusing this gift. The fault, then, is not to be placed at god’s feet (indeed, he is now even better than we had supposed!), but rather to be borne on the backs of the beings he created. Surely we wouldn’t want to turn down free will, right?
So you see, very clearly, how free will is critically important to solving this problem. If it could be demonstrated that there is no free will, then perhaps the most popular theodicy would go right down the toilet. Given that I think the notion of free will being discussed in this sense is utterly non-sensical, I don’t give it much weight, but let’s briefly delve a little further.
Why the free will theodicy makes no sense
Suppose that free will does account for the Problem of Human Evil. I mentioned above that there is a second category that is, as of now, still unexplained which we will turn to. This is the Problem of Natural Evil. Certainly a great deal of evil, hardship, and suffering can be attributed to the way we treat each other and the “choices” we make as individuals, but there exists yet another type of suffering over which we have no control: nature. We live precariously on a single pale blue dot in the midst of a vast universe; a blue dot that can support life some of the time in some of its places. If the Earth is too hot or too cold, it doesn’t make for good living amongst us homo sapiens sapiens. Even if we find places to live where temperature, for example, could be considered fairly consistent, what are we to do about every storm that thunders our way? Amazingly, the victims of Hurricane Katrina did not see this angle (indeed, many reports suggested that the faith of the victims had only grown stronger, which supports my personal hypothesis that religion and god are largely mechanisms of consolation). Sure, god couldn’t interfere with the free will of the looters, but did the hurricane itself have any free will? Couldn’t god have blown the hurricane away from the levees? Unfortunately, the only response on this question is one that is not even respectable: as pastor John Hagee put it, New Orleans was being punished for its sinful past. While one wonders about the morality of drowning babies for the crimes of their forefathers, I can’t help but think this works surprisingly well with the substitution of punishment that is epitomized in the story of Jesus Christ.
Free will in heaven
So far, I would say we have established a few principles in the mind of the Christian apologist. Free will is an incredible gift which god would not deny us. Given that free will, we humans inevitably cause or create some evil in our environment. What can we say about heaven, then? Heaven is often described as the most perfect place one can imagine. Does such an imagination jive well with what we humans do when we’re given free will? In other words, can we have free will in heaven and still have it be completely free of evil? As the Christian apologist has argued earlier, these are clearly incompatible properties, which explains the evil present on Earth. So either we have free will in heaven and there is evil present, or we do not have free will in heaven and there is no evil. If we take the former to be true, then heaven is certainly not perfect, and it’s unclear how it would be significantly better than Earth. If we take the latter to be true, then I have to ask in what sense we are still us; without a free will to exercise, are we not reduced to the deterministic machines that the religion is trying to save us from?
A counter argument here is that heaven is so good that no one even wants to commit evil. Sure, we could if we really wanted to, but no one has the desire to exercise their free will for the purpose of doing evil. God has done such an incredible job with heaven, we must ask ourselves: why did he fail so miserably in the natural universe?
Determinism and First-Cause Arguments
There is an interesting way here in which Christian apologists like to have their cake and eat it, too. They assert that we have contra-causal free will, and this is why there is evil in the world. To assert this free will, they argue that god has given it to us, but to get to god, they typically use the Cosmological (or First-Cause) argument. Loosely stated, it says that there is a cause for everything, and that if we trace the causal chain backwards, we inevitably arive at some first cause which was itself uncaused. If this were not so, we would have an infinite regress of events backwards in time, each event caused by some prior one ad infinitum. So the answer to such a problem is that god is the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause. He exists outside of space-time (though I don’t have the slightest clue of what “existence” is supposed to mean in this sense), and thus he was able to create time and space without logically requiring his own creator. I won’t get into the Cosmological argument now (google for refutations of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, likely the strongest form), but what I want to draw attention to is this two-sided thinking. To the Christian apologist, we know god exists because everything has a cause and there must necessarily be some uncaused cause, while at the same time not everything requires a cause because we exercise our free will. In other words, the causal chain that is used to establish god’s existence is broken by the free will that god’s existence gives us.
The idea of free will has always been appealing to me. As someone who would be considered a Classical Liberal (or, in the Western world, what we call a Libertarian), the idea that we have the free will and liberty to do as we so choose seems to be an important part of my philosophy. That is why attacking my own ideas of free will has proven so painstaking, but ultimately necessary. I can return to my Libertarian philosophy, for the time being, by preferring influence and interaction within a diverse free market over the typically more mono-culture government. Still, it is clear that the truth of free will and determinism has an inseperable impact on our ideas of justice and, indeed, our religious sensibilities, and so I look forward to continued scientific and philosophical enlightenment in an oft-forgotten but ever-important question.