Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

12. Intuition of Free Will

Book cover: The Free Will Delusion by James B. Mile

I want to end on a magical note. Libertarians say that we have a strong intuition, a compelling feeling, that when we act freely, we act contra-causally. Hard determinists go along with this idea that we have this feeling of contra-causality when we act. But, the hard determinists say, it's all an illusion.

For example, the libertarian philosopher, Timothy O'Connor, puts our ordinary experience like this:

The decision I make is no mere vector sum of internal and external forces acting upon me during the process of deliberation (if, indeed, I deliberate at all). Rather, I bring it about—directly, you might say—in response to the various considerations: I am the source of my own activity, not merely in a relative sense as the most proximate and salient locus of an unbroken chain of causal transactions leading up to this event, but fundamentally, in a way not prefigured by what has gone before. Or, again, so it seems.

[Agent Causation, Agents, Causes, and Events: Essays on Indeterminism and Free Will, 1995: 173]

I propose that both the libertarian and the hard determinist are mistaken here. Ask yourself, 'What is it to have an illusion of something?' An illusion is a perception that represents what you perceive in a way different from the way it is in reality. The vanishing ball illusion is a great example of a perceptual illusion. The magician throws a small ball twice into the air. On the third throw, he makes the hand motion, but hides the ball in his closed fist. We perceive the ball to be flying up into the air, only to vanish in thin air a moment later.

Now, for someone to say that they experienced the illusion of seeing the ball in the air, they must know what it's like to really see the ball in the air. Otherwise, how would they know it was an illusion of a ball in the air they experienced? Compare this situation with the hard determinist claiming that we experience the illusion of a contra-causal will. Do we really know what it's like to experience a contra-causal will; the real deal? On the hard determinists own thesis, that's an impossibility. So, without knowing what the real thing feels like, the hard determinist can hardly claim that we are experiencing an illusion of the real thing; an illusion of a contra-causal will.

What does this mean for 'free will' talk? If no one has ever experienced genuine contra-causal free will or its illusion, then the opportunity or impetus for people to talk about their experience of contra-causal free will would not have arisen. Just as if no one had ever experienced a real ball or its illusion, no one would be talking about their experience of balls. The upshot here is that if free will is not the psychological illusion that hard determinists claim it is, then this cannot be a reason for denying that we possess free will.

Book cover: The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

Libertarians, on the other hand, claim that they really directly perceive contra-causal will. But how can they have this perception? How is it that they directly perceive some of their decisions as resulting from neural firings in the brain that are not completely physically caused? Imagine that you are at your friend's house. She offers you tea or coffee. Sure, you don't feel any kind of physical impulse forcing your finger to point to the tea or coffee. You would be the first to know if there were such a force acting on your finger. Furthermore, you don't feel any kind of impulse forcing neurons in your brain to adopt particular action potentials. But notice the queerness of the latter kind of feeling. Feelings of your finger being forced are natural and we all know what that feels like. However, what would it feel like to have particular neurons in your brain forced into particular states by physical forces? At this very moment, there are billions of neurons in your brain that are having their states determined by the action potentials of other neurons. With these neurons, though, you don't get to feel what it feels like to have these neurons fire in a completely deterministic fashion. What happens at the bio-chemical level under your skull is opaque to your conscious awareness.

This is not just a theoretical exercise. The way your eyelids blink is an instructive example here. One way they blink is spontaneously. They do this every few seconds and without your conscious awareness most of the time. This automatic blinking is triggered by activity in the pre-motor brain stem. The other way they blink is when you make a conscious, voluntary decision to make them blink. Now, between these two ways of blinking, automatic and freely willed, you don't notice any difference in feeling in how your neurons are firing in your brain. However hard you try, you can't discern through introspection that the automatic blinks are completely caused while the latter are not.

What we can conclude from this introspective psychological reflection about which kinds of states we can have a feeling about and which we can't is that the hard determinists give away too much to the libertarians. The 'illusion' of contra-causal free will that the hard determinists refer to is an illusion itself. It is a chimera that only serves to confuse the debate. We, in fact, do not have an 'illusion' of contra-causal free will because it's not the kind of thing that we can have an illusion about. If our feeling of free will is not a feeling of contra-causal willing, then what is it? As I've suggested throughout this talk, it's the 'feeling' of the absence of compulsion. The feeling of free will, then, is not so much a positive feeling. It is the absence of a feeling. Just as being 'pain-free' is not a feeling. Being 'pain-free' is simply the absence of the feeling of pain.

Copyright © 2018

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