Why The Free Will Problem Isn’t One
by Daniel A. Kaufman
First of all, the “Free Will Problem” is a stupid name. I mean, do I have to think there is such a thing as a “will” in order to believe in Free Will? Or “freedom,” beyond that of being able to go to the mall, if I want to or not, if don’t? Am I supposed to be Kant or something? What on earth for?
So, I’d rather talk about the “agency problem.” The trouble is, there isn’t one. A “problem” suggests that something is wrong, and in this case, nothing is. Everyone thinks people have agency. Of course, not everyone says that. There are some philosophers (and some scientists trying to do philosophy in their free time) who say that we don’t. But, they are lying. Or if they aren’t, they have no idea what they are saying or what would follow, if they actually meant it. It reminds me of Chesterton’s observation that “the determinist … finds that he cannot say ‘if you please’ to the housemaid.” (1) The fact is that if you’ve ever given someone advice, asked someone for something, told someone to do something, praised or blamed someone for doing something, or engaged in any number of other garden-variety activities with people, then you believe they have agency. So why would you say there isn’t any? Just to publish papers on Free Will? Please, don’t. There’s only so much more bullshit anyone should have to take, as we are already swimming in it.
When you get right down to it, determinism is essentially a form of skepticism, and as always, with skepticism, there is a smart, interesting way of doing it, as well as a silly, boring one. With regard to skepticism about the external world it seems that thankfully – blissfully – a good number of people finally have found their way to the smart way of doing it. The proposition that the world doesn’t really exist or that there really aren’t other people isn’t a position that anyone holds, but a way of posing a challenge; a literary device, the purpose of which is to help us think more carefully about the reasons we give for the things we believe; about what they are and how they function. And if we really learn something from the exercise, we might come to understand that regardless of the inquiry, there will always be things that are not possible to doubt, because they have to – as Wittgenstein described it – “stand fast,” if the particularly line of inquiry is to proceed in the first place. If I am engaged in an inquiry with another person about our solar system, for example, I could have doubts about the number of moons that he claims orbit Saturn and demand that he provide reasons for why I should believe him. But I could not doubt that there are planets or moons and demand reasons for thinking there are. Or, rather, I could, but I would be taken as a “half-wit,” as Wittgenstein (admittedly, somewhat untactfully) put it. That there are planets and moons must stand fast, if we are to have conversations about and engage in inquiry with regard to our solar system. To demand reasons for that belief, in this context, is to misunderstand what reasons are and why one gives them. (2)
With regard to skepticism about agency, however – alas – many if not most people seem stuck on the silly, boring side of things, for the view that there is no agency is taken as an actual position, with a name and everything, and those who think that people do genuinely act are expected to provide reasons for thinking so. I’m not suggesting that no one has found their way to the smart, interesting side of the question. There still are some desultory Wittgensteinians and other assorted wise-people wandering around the philosophical landscape trying to remind everyone that one could try to understand the relationship between reasons and actions in terms other than those currently fashionable in what passes today for the philosophy of mind, but they are few and far between, and have about as much effect as ghosts whispering things in empty rooms.
I blame science for this to a great degree or more precisely, the ham-fisted importing of hard-scientific notions into our discussion of human activity and affairs, something for which both scientists and philosophers are to blame. That there is no agency involved in billiard balls bouncing off of one another and ending up in various holes (or not), because their movements are governed by strict causal laws, makes perfect sense, given our conception of the things involved. But the importation of these notions into our effort to understand human conduct – the treatment of our actions as nothing more than movements and the relationship between the states of mind responsible for them as strictly causal, in the same sense – is little more than an exercise in category-error-making. Billiard balls and their movements are mathematically quantifiable magnitudes. People and their actions are not. The latter, unlike the former, are only completely describable in what philosophers call “intentional terms,” meaning that one has not fully characterized either people or their actions, until one has included how they represent things and how things are represented. This is not true of billiard balls and their motions, which is why one can explain their various goings-on entirely in the language of classical mechanics, while one cannot do the same for people and the things they do. One is tempted, here, to say “duh,” but … oh, wait, I just did.
Going to the mall or passing someone the mustard or following someone’s beckoning finger as she motions towards you are actions that people engage in, which may involve the movements of various body parts but are not reducible to them, and because any accounting for them is steeped in intentionality, they presuppose agency, which simply is the doing of things for various reasons. Asking, “Why did you go to the mall?” or “Why did you pass him the mustard” or “Why did you follow that little minx ?” are not equivalent to asking “Why did the nerves and muscles in your arms and legs and the rest of your body do such and such?” and the causality involved, when one cites one’s reasons for doing the various things in question, like “because I wanted to go and hang out with my friends and maybe get a Slurpee in the Food Court” or “because I know he loves mustard on his hot dogs” or “because she was eager and gorgeous, and I’m not an idiot” is not equivalent to – or anything like, really – that invoked in the accounts one gives of the billiard balls’ movements or of the movements of your arms and legs or your other body parts. With respect to the question of agency, then, and returning to Wittgenstein’s remarks on skepticism for a moment, once we are speaking of actions and our reasons for engaging in them, that people have agency must stand fast and is not something about which it makes any sense to demand reasons for believing, unless one is, I regret to say, a half-wit. I can doubt your reason for going to the mall or even that you went there at all. But what I can’t doubt is that there is such a thing as reasons for going to malls or people going to them – and I mean people going to them, not peoples’ body parts moving through them – any more than I can (not half-wittedly) doubt that there are malls or people.
Now, beyond half-wits, there also are genuinely crazy people, who will want to say, “so much the worse for actions and reasons and agency then” and suggest that motor movements and their mechanical (and other hard-scientific) causes are all there “really” is. The super crazy ones, like B.F. Skinner, may even be somewhat more consistent in their stand and go on to say things like “and worse still for responsibility, reward, desert, and all the other things that presuppose actions and reasons and agency,” as he did in his gloriously crazy book, with its suitably crazy title, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. (3) But being crazier and more consistent doesn’t make any of it any more believable (or less silly). It’s not just that I’m sure that when Skinner was alive he asked people to pass him the mustard or that he blamed people when they cheated him or followed the odd minx or two’s crooked fingers, back in his racier days, but that the behaviorist’s supposedly purely mechanistic – and therefore, deterministic – accounts just never could be made to work, without intentionality and agency somehow sneaking back in. Sure, it’s likely that if you deprive someone of food or water long enough, he’ll eat or drink something if offered it, but if he’s on a hunger strike and believes he shouldn’t, he might not. And of course, if you litter the mall with lovely minxes with beckoning fingers, the odds are that a lot of guys are going to make it a priority destination, but if one of them suddenly realizes that he’s forty-eight and quite happily married, he might not. So, where one may find the nice, neat, cause and effect-chains determinists like so much, if one focuses one’s attention at the level of peoples’ pharynxes or esophagi and their degrees of dryness and responses to moisture and the like or on the body parts involved in sexual arousal, once you start talking about people and drinking and hunger striking and chasing or not chasing girls, you’ve left that framework behind and the neat causality and determinism with it. You are in a world full of – and defined by – agency.
I would be remiss not to blame philosophers too, because while they aren’t the ones talking the worst nonsense about this stuff (that would be the perennially regrettable Sam Harris), they are the ones who should know better. I mentioned the philosophy of mind, and it really is the sorry state of that once fascinating, productive discipline that is to blame here. Maybe it’s just physics envy, to which philosophers have always been susceptible, or maybe it’s the fact that somehow they just didn’t notice the word ‘social’ in front of ‘social science’ – of which psychology is one – but philosophers working in the philosophy of mind have largely adopted the billiard-ball model of causal explanation in their accounts of human action, and not just middlebrow philosophers, but the brightest lights in the discipline; the people who have done truly brilliant work. In this area, however, the stuff they are doing is no better than it was in Descartes’ day, something that poor souls like Peter Hacker (who really is doing the Lord’s work) have been trying to point out, now for decades, to little avail. (4)
Heads, for these people, are like boxes at the end of one’s neck, in which we find things called “mental states” that by way of the nerves cause other things that go on in the rest of the body, called “behaviors.” (They tend not to use the word ‘actions’, as the connotations are too difficult to ignore and risk upsetting the “we’re doing science” cart.) Funnily – sadly – this isn’t too far from Descartes’ good old lever-and-pulley metaphor, in which the nerves act like bell-ropes and human actions are conceived of in a way that suggests we are like organic marionettes. That mental states are thought of today in terms of neurochemicals and the nerves as transmitters doesn’t make things better, but actually worse, because it has sent a whole crowd of otherwise very smart people chasing down one rabbit-hole after another trying to figure out how a bunch of neurochemicals can represent something or have qualitative characteristics. They can’t of course – such characteristics only arise from a point of view – and so the holes always turn up empty. To explain peoples’ actions is as much to interpret them as it is to do anything of the sort one does, when one accounts for the movements of billiard balls or muscles and limbs, by which I mean it is to render them intelligible, in the sense of understanding them from the actor’s own point of view.
Since our own Paul So’s essay on Compatibilism is what inspired me to write this, let me (very) briefly say something about that view, though I’m afraid it won’t be very nice, either. (5) Compatibilism is a response to Determinism that treats it as an actual position, and since we should understand now that the question of agency has to do with human actions and our reasons for engaging in them and that there are no actions or reasons or explanations of actions, without agency, it should be quite clear – for all the reasons discussed – that the determinist’s criticism is at best irrelevant and that Compatibilism therefore, is entirely unnecessary.
But, what about these Harry Frankfurt-style thought experiments, the “Frankfurters”? A person wants to vote Democrat, and he does. A mad scientist has set up a failsafe, such that if the person decides to vote Republican instead, it will make him vote Democrat. The case is supposed to be significant, because in contemporary philosophical discussions on Free Will, the determinist bogeyman has been largely understood though the idea that if people act freely, they could have acted otherwise, and if Determinism is true, then people cannot act other than the way they acted. (Got that?) In this version of the Frankfurter, then, nothing could have happened other than the person voting Democrat (because of the failsafe), but our “intuition” is that the person still acted freely and is properly praised or blamed for what he did, and this is supposed to show that Free Will and Determinism can go together.
It’s a bizarre example. For one thing, it isn’t true that nothing could have happened other than the person voting Democrat – he might have decided to vote Republican and succeeded, the machine having short-circuited and electrocuted the Mad Scientist instead – but like children and their toys, philosophers will have their thought experiments, so let them have the Frankfurter. The weirder thing is that it doesn’t address any real challenge to the question of agency, and that’s because in the example – and the discussion in which the example is raised – agency and more specifically, who and what agents and actions are, is completely misunderstood.
The person acted – and thus, has agency – if he voted for a reason. If he, the person, engaged in the act of voting, for a reason. And according to the Frankfurter, he did, as the Mad Scientist’s failsafe never went off, and the person intended to vote Democrat. Had the counterfactual situation obtained, however, and the Mad Scientist’s failsafe gone off, it’s not as if he still would have voted, but against his will. Rather, though his hands and fingers would have engaged in various motor movements and certain buttons would have been depressed as a result (causal chain!), he would not have been the person who voted. Rather, the Mad Scientist would have voted, using the person’s body as a proxy. How do we know this? Well, for one thing, you could not interpret the person’s bodily movements in light of his reasons – could not comprehend the action from his point of view – as his intentions were to vote Republican. No, his bodily movements are only interpretable as reflecting the Mad Scientist’s reasons and are thus only intelligible as actions, from his point of view. And for another, if the whole sordid affair was discovered by the local authorities, the Mad Scientist would be indicted for fraudulent voting, which indicates that as far as the law is concerned, it was he who voted, not the brain-and-body hijacked person.
The whole question of the relationship between agency and whether I could have done otherwise is also misunderstood in the Frankfurter and the discussions in which Frankfurters are deployed. That I could have done otherwise is a consequence of my agency, not a condition for it. Alternative possibilities are not like pre-existing roads or a selection of cupcakes, where my agency is defined in terms of my being able to pick one or another, without interference. Rather, they exist as a result of the fact that when one acts, one does so for one reason or another, and there are many reasons why one might do something. That’s the kind of things actions are. So, if I accept the mall minx’s advances, it makes perfect sense for my wife to blame me afterwards and say “You could have done otherwise,” given that rather than acting out of the sort of adolescent longing that accompanies many men’s mid-life crises, I might have acted out of love and loyalty instead or at least, split the difference and gone and bought a sports car. Of course, replying that I was “caused” would not help me one bit, nor should it.
(1) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (John Lane Company, 1908).
(2) This is essentially Wittgenstein’s account of the reason why relative to any particular inquiry, some propositions will be necessary and not subject to epistemic warrant. As for the “half-wit” line:
- 257. If someone said to me that he doubted whether he had a body I should take him to be a halfwit. But I shouldn’t know what it would mean to try to convince him that he had one. And if I had said something, and that had removed his doubt, I should not know how or why.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, tr. by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (1969). The book is a compilation of Wittgenstein’s extended reflections on G.E. Moore’s essay, “A Defence of Common Sense.”
G.E. Moore, “A Defence of Common Sense,” Contemporary British Philosophy (2nd series), ed. J. H. Muirhead, 1925.
(3) B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).
(4) I’ve posted these videos so many times that I should receive royalties. They should be required watching, before anyone is permitted to work in the philosophy of mind.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZx93eov5i4&t (Hacker begins at 1:00.00)