Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

9. Paradigmatic Examples of 'Free Will'

Book cover: Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West by A. C. Grayling

The examples of restrictions on free will that I have given so far are not exhaustive. However, they do represent the way ordinary folk think and talk about free will. If you are still skeptical, I encourage you to get into discussion groups, offline or online, and listen to or read comments from contributors on the freedom-restricting circumstances I've highlighted. In ordinary people's minds, what limits free will is not causality, but coercion, manipulation, addiction and mental illness. This way of thinking has only been further elaborated and refined by modern developments in psychiatric practice and jurisprudence.

Another way to illustrate my point is by looking at paradigmatic uses of the term 'free will' in common discourse. Imagine you're waiting in your local supermarket queue and you overhear this question asked in a conversation about a recent marriage:

Mary asks Anisha: 'Did you marry Sanjay of your own free will?'

My question to you is: If Anisha did not marry Sanjay of her own free will, what evidence would you be listening for in Anisha's answer?

[Did you listen for evidence of coercion, such as: 'My entire family would have abandoned me and I would have been evicted and left with no money'?]

My next question to you now is: If Anisha did marry Sanjay of her own free will, again, what evidence would you be listening for in Anisha's answer?

[Did you listen for evidence of the absence of coercion, such as: 'Yes. We fell in love at university and my parents had no objections'?]

How many of you were thinking of and looking for evidence about the neurophysiological state of Anisha's brain? Who was waiting for Anisha to start talking about her motor cortex and whether there were sufficient physical causes firing her neurons?

This reminds me of a joke I heard the other day:

A young couple came into the church office to fill out a pre-marriage questionnaire form. The young man had never talked to a pastor before and so was quite nervous. The pastor saw this and tried to put him at ease. When they came to the question, 'Are you entering this marriage of your own free will?' there was a long pause. Finally, the girl looked over at the apprehensive young man and said, 'Put down yes.'

The lesson here is that questions about whether a person chose freely are practical questions, rooted in people's day-to-day lives. Hard determinists, in particular, have taken our modern, scientific understanding of the brain and overlaid this causal model onto what they think common language terms, such as 'free will', mean. Scientists, such as Sam Harris, have also fallen into this trap of injecting their metaphysical understanding of the world into what they think is the common person's use of ordinary language terms.

The absurdity of this kind of approach is also evident from looking at other paradigmatic instances of the use of 'free'. The term, 'free', is used as a modifier with a number of other nouns. Consider these examples.

When we speak of a 'free range' chicken, we are not meaning a chicken whose movements are contra-causal. We are not meaning that the chicken moves in a way that breaks the laws of deterministic physics. We mean that the chicken's movements are not constricted by being housed in a cage or enclosed barn.

Take the term 'free thought'. When we advocate the right of 'free thought' in society, we are upholding the right to thought and expression that is free from government, religious and other institutional restrictions. We are not referring to thought that is contra-causal.

Book cover: Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science by Andy Clark

Similarly, a drawing done 'free hand' does not mean a drawing that broke the laws of physics during its creation. It's a drawing that is created free from the constraints of instruments, templates and guides. There are many other examples that illustrate the same point, including 'free vote', 'free fall' and 'free enterprise'. You can see the pattern here.

The ordinary-language critique I'm advancing here tonight can be extended to judicial language and thinking. Throughout the modern history of jurisprudence, in determining whether a defendant was absent of the capacity for free will at the time of the crime, no jury or judge has requested or called in expert witnesses to attest to the fact that at the time of the crime the defendant's relevant brain states transitioned from a physically contra-causal state to a causal state. This is not surprising as no dualist theory of mind and body has delivered on the promise. No metaphysician yet has presented evidence for how and when particular neuron firings in a person's brain gets removed from the chains of causation to which neighbouring neurons belong. The same is the case for indeterminists advocating random quantum effects in the brain.

In fact, judges examine, and juries are asked to consider, whether there were any circumstances that either eliminated or mitigated the defendant's ability to choose freely. The types of circumstances that the judge and jury consider include precisely those types of encumbrances I outlined: coercion or manipulation by a third party, drug addiction and mental illness. These are precisely the impediments to free will to which the compatibilist points. If you want to find out more about how judicial defenses work, please see my essay where I have included a reference for an excellent systematic summary by Paul Robinson [Criminal Law Defenses: A Systematic Analysis, Columbia Law Review, 1982].

Some hard determinists and libertarians have objected to this 'ordinary language' account of free will by pointing to a series of psychological studies that examine how the person on the street actually thinks. These surveys, they argue, demonstrate that ordinary folk mean 'free will' in the contra-causal sense. However, when you actually look at these studies, on balance, the better designed studies show the opposite; that people's use is agnostic to the question of contra-causality. I've written a critical review of some of these studies and drawn some conclusions. My review is titled, Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review.

Copyright © 2018

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