Free Will and Compatibilism

6. Intuition of Free Will

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

Some libertarians make much of our intuition that when we act freely, we feel as if we act unconstrained by antecedent physical conditions and causes; that we act contra-causally. Campbell [1967: 41], for example, urges us that:

human beings so obstinately persist in believing that there is an indissoluble core of purely self-originated activity which even heredity and environment are powerless to affect . . . because they feel certain of the existence of such activity from their immediate practical experience of themselves

In recounting the experience of ordinary folk, O'Connor [1995: 173] also explicitly rejects the determinate role of physical forces in shaping our decisions. As he explains:

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.

Hard determinists, in contrast, call into question this feeling, labelling it as just an 'illusion' of free will. I think both positions are mistaken. Let me deal first with the hard determinist's claim that free will is an 'illusion'. 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 they experienced the illusion of a contra-causal will. Do they really know what it's like to experience a contra-causal will? 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 they are experiencing an illusion of the real thing; an illusion of a contra-causal will. As the hard determinist claims that no one has ever really experienced a contra-causal will, they must conclude that no one has ever had the illusion of doing so. And if no one has ever had the illusion of free will, then there can be no imperative from direct experience for common folk to embed contra-causality into their concept of 'free will'. 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.

I will now deal with the libertarian case. Contra the hard determinist, the libertarian claims 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. You have the ability to freely blink your eyelids whenever you wish. When you are not attending to them, your eyelids blink spontaneously every few seconds. This automatic blinking is triggered by activity in the pre-motor brain stem and happens without your conscious deliberation. However, when your eyelids blink automatically, you don't get the feeling, the seeming, that the neurons firing in your pre-motor brain stem is fully caused in that moment. Just as you don't get to feel what your neurons are doing and the causal antecedents of their firings when you blink spontaneously, you don't get to feel what they are doing when you perform the exact same behaviour willingly.

The libertarian is akin to the observer who feels that the free market exists because they sense the absence of market forces when they look at a ticker tape display of current share prices. Just as the millions of individual share trades going on behind the scene is not the kind of thing that can be perceived simply from looking at the ticker tape, fully caused neural firings is not the kind of thing that can be sensed when we will an action. Contra the hard determinist, there is also no 'illusion' of freedom from deterministic forces because the presence or absence of underlying causes cannot be perceived directly. Both the libertarian and hard determinist misconstrue freedom. As we know, the 'free market' is not about being free of market forces. It's about the absence of state control over the financial markets. Similarly with 'free will'. 'Free will' is not about being free of physical forces in the brain. It's about being unencumbered when making our choices.

The 'free market' scenario above illustrates the important similarities between the case against the libertarians and the case against the hard determinists. The hard determinists failed in simply assuming that free will is an illusion. They failed because they could not point to any instances of the perception of real contra-causal willing with which to contrast its illusion. Similarly, for the libertarians, they failed to justify the veracity of their direct perception of the contra-causality of some behaviours as they could not point to any genuine direct perceptions of fully caused behaviours with which to contrast its freedom from causality. The upshot here is that the feeling of free will that we have must be something other than the feeling that some of our brain states are undetermined or underdetermined by physical forces.

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 suggest above, 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 © 2016, 2018, 2021

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