Why free will matters

free willAnytime a newspaper reporter tries to tackle the subject of philosophy in a serious way, it’s a good thing. Carey Goldberg’s report in The Boston Globe on Harvard professor Marc Hauser’s work to prove that morality is universally hard-wired into the brain is no exception.

Tucked 12 paragraphs into the story is “huge news” that sadly receives little attention from Goldberg, who seems to focus more on the arguments of whose theory has the most validity rather than the possible real world effect of Hauser’s work:

Some critics also charge that Hauser’s emphasis on biology negates the concept of free will and implies that all our moral choices are predetermined.

What is the big deal regarding free will? Yes, I am all too familiar with the free will vs. predestination debates, and no, these critics are not saying that negating free will means the Calvinists won. That is not what this is about, at least for now. Eliminate the free-will doctrine and nobody is responsible for things anymore, at least in the courtroom. Here is The Economist in December:

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one’s actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different.

It is no new development in the American legal system for accused criminals to challenge the charge that their crime was their fault. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood started chipping away at that concept 40 years ago.

And it’s not just in the legal system that this matters. More from The Economist:

Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

This type of discussion is also key to figuring out the future of the culture wars in a society that bases its laws on the will of the people. A “moral dilemma” example given by Hauser is why most people find it wrong to kill a sick patient with no chance of surviving while it would be OK to do nothing and allow that patient to die. Is that type of moral reasoning hard-wired into the human brain? If so, why? If this “experimental philosophy” is somehow able to gain credibility in our society, how soon until we see it being used in determining the basis for our laws?

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  • evagrius

    Out of curiosity,did you take the MST, ( Moral Sense Test)?

  • Martha

    Got sidetracked there by the quizzes – very interesting.

    “If this “experimental philosophy” is somehow able to gain credibility in our society, how soon until we see it being used in determining the basis for our laws?”

    Don’t we already see it? (she said cynically). Dunno about your lot, but our Minister for Kneejerk Response – I mean, Justice – seems to avidly follow the tabloids, and when there’s the regular panic about crime! and lawlessness!! on our streets!!! he immediately leaps into the fray with a plan of action, mainly revolving around Getting Tough and More Jail (and telling the judges they should be sending more perps to chokey for longer, but I digress.)

    Seriously, haven’t we seen all this before? “It’s society’s fault!/No, it’s the horrible little monsters themselves are at fault!/They can’t help themselves – it’s deprivation!/Of course they can – they should be pulling themselves up by their bootstrings!/It’s in their genes!/It’s pure evil, is what it is!” And the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, and the reporters fill up yet more column inches with popular science in ten words or less, and the researchers tear their hair out about “I didn’t say *that*”, and “That’s *not* what it means” and “The results can’t be interpreted that simply”…

  • dpulliam

    I started taking the MST but I got distracted and started doing other things. Looked interesting though.

  • http://uncoolbook.blogspot.com/ Paul Grant

    Francis Schaeffer observed thirty years ago, that when we build a universe starting from ourselves (what Schaeffer calls autonomy), we are bound in a course leading toward determinism. Human freedom has no meaning without a concrete (God) starting point.

  • evagrius

    It all depends on what is meant by “freedom”.

    The Buddhists claim that no one is free who isn’t free from desire, ( which could be seen as genetic in some sense).

    Follow the Buddha’s way and one will obtain freedom.

    This isn’t that removed from early Christianity, by the way. Early monasticism advocated a similar approach arguing that freedom from the passions, resulting in apatheia, ( dispassion or impassibility), freed the monk to be able to reach union with God.

    It’s an interesting problem. Ancient, traditional religions regarded freedom as, in a certain way, a negative, ( from society’s viewpoint),as away from the passions or desire, while modern society regards freedom as freedom of choice, ( which to traditional society is no freedom at all, just merely the ability to follow the passions).

  • http://www.centerfornaturalism.org Tom Clark

    The science-based questioning of contra-causal free will is long overdue and well underway, and need not be feared. There are fully naturalistic understandings of human dignity, freedom and responsibility that don’t involve our being exceptions to cause and effect. Seeing that we don’t have contra-causal free will – that we aren’t self-caused – might in fact lead to more compassionate and effective interpersonal attitudes and social policies.

  • Dale

    Goldberg is missing some basic conflicts in this story. First:

    A psychologist, evolutionary biologist, and anthropologist, Hauser has felt students grow restless as he talks about the underpinnings of morality.

    Hauser is a psychologist, not a philosopher, and that certainly shows in the way he analyzes moral choices. In Hauser’s model such choices are determined either by biology or culture, nature or nurture. He doesn’t address individual moral agency, because it is in the very nature of moral agency that it can’t be quantified, unlike the concepts in biology or (more questionably) the social sciences of psychology or anthropology. Instead, moral agency is expressed in individual, qualitative judgments. Hauser can measure brain activity, behavior, or cultural artifacts, but he can’t measure the “wrongness” of an action.

    The method by which Hauser chooses to analyze moral choice excludes moral agency at the outset. He can’t prove that humans lack free will because his whole conceptual model (biology/psychology/anthropology) presupposes that such a thing does not exist.

    So we have “moral intuitions” (nonrational reactions to moral choices) rather than moral judgments.

    He isn’t consistent in this, though.

    Hauser and other morality researchers are working to tease apart “the system that allows us to intuitively, unconsciously make moral judgments about what’s right or wrong,” he said. “And that capacity is distinct from how we go about justifying what we do, or what we actually do.”

    By distinguishing our moral intuitions (what is an “unconscious judgment”?) from “what we actually do”, Hauser is letting Cartesian dualism back into his model. In Hauser’s thinking, the moral intuitions are physical, hard-wired in the brain. If what we do is not identical with the moral intuitions created by physical brain processes, that implies another factor is at play–the mind–that can determine our actions.
    The idea that one can “tease apart” the physical processes of the brain from “how we justify what we do or what we actually do” implies a mind/body dualism.

    In classic Cartesian dualism, the mind is locus of reason and judgment, and thus moral agency. So, unless Hauser eliminates the distinction between our “moral intuitions” and “what we actually do”, there’s still a place for moral agency.

    That’s a very long way of saying that Hauser doesn’t exclude the possibility of free will.

    The second issue Goldberg doesn’t address is this:

    Hauser and other morality researchers perform many of their experiments by presenting subjects with moral dilemmas from a repertoire of hundreds of them.

    If you actually look at the moral dilemmas presented in the on-line survey, they are hopelessly artificial. Before the test subject makes a choice, he is told the certain outcome of the alternative actions set before him, usually involving the deaths of one or more people. How many times does that happen to people in real life? Not often, I would think.

    Finally, “experimental philosophy” doesn’t sound like philosophy, it sounds like behavioral psychology. When you start saying something like this:

    “evidence from evolutionary theory, from comparing humans to other animals, and other methods to derive constraints on the nature of these principles, constraints we couldn’t just derive by reasoning alone,” said Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at UNC.

    philosophy becomes the phenomena of “deeper” psychology/biology. So perhaps a better description would be the “psychology of morals or ethics”.

    It would have helped if Goldberg had spoken to a “conventional” philosopher of ethics to get a different perspective on “experimental philosophy”.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    Francis Schaeffer observed thirty years ago, that when we build a universe starting from ourselves (what Schaeffer calls autonomy), we are bound in a course leading toward determinism.

    Autonomy leads to determinism? I’d like to see that double Hegelian back flip.

    The Buddhists claim that no one is free who isn’t free from desire, ( which could be seen as genetic in some sense).

    For Buddhists desire is a problem but the root problem is ignorance. But “free” here is not the same “free” as in free will, which Buddhist deduce from the premise of the autonomy of the mind.

  • Ken Abbott

    What is the big deal regarding free will? Yes, I am all too familiar with the free will vs. predestination debates, and no, these critics are not saying that negating free will means the Calvinists won.

    Um, small misconception here. Free will (properly understood) is not antithetical to Calvinism. An entire chapter (IX) of the Westminster Confession of Faith is devoted to the subject. However, Calvinism does teach that human autonomy is incompatible with divine sovereignty.

  • evagrius

    Oh, oh. That “misconception” word again.

  • Cole

    Why, again, should we think Hauser denies free will? And why think the social sciences are all antithetical to free will? I don’t even know how this discussion even got started? And what does it have to do with predestination (the damned and the elect?)? And I fail to see what denying moral agency (assuming anyone intends to make such a denial) has to do with “measuring ‘wrongness’” (not to mention why ‘wrongness’ gets scare quotes).

    I don’t think the distinction between moral intuitions and behavior introduces any dualism, Cartesian or otherwise. To say that people don’t always act on their moral intuitions is not to say that there are mental substances apart from and different in kind from the material world. Pick a psychological state, and odds are, people don’t always act on it. Moral intuitions, cravings for food, whatever. Psychology is complicated. I don’t see the dualism.

    What’s an unconscious judgment? Well, the way Jonathan Haidt talks about them, they’re judgments that suddenly appear in consciousness without any conscious awareness of the process that produced them. Is there supposed to be some problem here? Moral intuitions are judgments — judgments that show up in this way. According to these guys, a lot of social thinking is automatic, operating ‘in the background’. No surprise that moral intuitions are produced by automatic processes.

    Experimental philosophy is (in large part) trying to find out what concepts everyday folk are working with. This is related to philosophy, because a lot of philosophical projects involve trying to give an analysis of a problematic concept, in a way that still fits with the folk concept. So, to take an unrelated example, if I give an analysis of free will, one important question is whether my analysis more or less fits the folk concept of free will. Because if it doesn’t, then any theorizing incorporating the analysis might be guilty of simply changing the subject (as when Hobbes defines ‘liberty’ in such a way that water in a channel has liberty when there’s nothing stopping it from descending — that’s probably not what we meant by ‘liberty’, Hobbes!)

    This whole discussion looks confused to me.

  • Dan

    Free will is a mystery that will never be solved. One of my favorite novelists however made the astute comment that we have not one will but many.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    To me the most interesting thing about the Economist passage is the huge religion ghost that’s hidden within it. It implies that criminals may not be free, but that we who make judgements about morality as “righteous” people are free. Am I the only one who sees basic Christian teaching about how sin taints the will in this?

    If one is to take their justification of irresponsibility seriously, then those who seek to punish or otherwise act against lawbreakers also are not responsible for their views or their actions. The kind of statements made in the Economist presuppose that the non-criminal are, in some sense, fundamentally free; they assume that moral suasion in the form of arguments works in its own abstract right and not just as molecular/psychological token-pushing; only criminals are not free. That is unmistakably a Christian teaching.

  • JP

    Do I misremember, or did C.S. Lewis once write a bit about free will and determinism being nothing more than two limited human perspectives on the same eternal reality?


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