This autumn, I taught a course on freedom. Naturally, the problem of free will was on the docket. It’s one of those topics in philosophy—like personal identity or possible worlds—that I find both frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating because I can’t help but feel there’s something fundamentally misguided about the whole business, to the point where familiar approaches aren’t just unlikely to yield satisfying answers, but where they seem fixed in a framework that prevents us from seeing clearly what gives rise to the problems in the first place. But I find these topics fascinating because the blinkers that prevent us from seeing clearly are interesting blinkers. Philosophy sets all sorts of traps for our thinking and examining those traps is a worthwhile exercise in itself.
Before I go on, I should say that philosophy is hard and my frustrations are really just hunches. It could be that the people down in the trenches thrashing out the arguments about determinism and compatibilism, the psychological or biological account of personal identity, are doing yeoman’s work and I’m just too lazy and pretentious to see its value.
As far as I can tell, free will is a problem for us because choice is a problem for us. In ways small and large, I make choices in life, and I feel the burden of those choices. The choices I make matter because things go differently depending on what choices I make. The burden I feel comes from the recognition that the choices I make are mine and that different possible futures open up depending on which choices I make. You might say that choice is where self makes contact with reality.
One fashionable way of denying free will altogether is by appeal to certain results in the sciences. The brain’s already made its decision on a subpersonal level, we’re told, well before we become conscious of making a choice. The neuroscience is relatively new but the form of the argument is an old one. It’s a variant on the deterministic thesis that the human body and mind are products of nature and nothing in nature is exempt from nature’s laws.
Like a lot of scientific research that seeps into popular discourse, the implications of this neuroscientific research have been vastly overstated. But the problem with this approach, to my mind, is that it passes by what actually matters to us here. It doesn’t touch the reason why the idea of free will has a grip on us in the first place. Empirical neuroscience doesn’t inform or alter the quandary I face of having to make choices. Empirical science is a third-personal discipline and free will is a first-personal predicament. I’ve spelled out this idea in more detail in a past blog post.
All this by way of preface. What interests me in this blog post is where I might get to by taking the neuroscience-as-determinism view seriously. What happens if I really try to believe that, contrary to my experience of the matter, I don’t make choices after all?
When I try to picture what the determinist is telling me, I see myself in something like an x-ray view, a shadowy skull balanced on a skeleton, wiggling its jaw or moving about, but with the “person” absent. This uncanny figure carries out all the familiar behaviour but with a kind of automaticity. There’s the semblance of human agency but the engine driving it is biological machinery, not volition.
It takes poise and concentration to keep this exercise going for more than a few seconds. The impulse to snap back into being “me” is powerful. But if I make the right effort, I can even move about a little and experience it as muscles and tendons pulling on bones rather than “me” “walking.”
Harder still, but not impossible, is to try speaking while holding on to this feeling—the feeling that this is something that’s happening of its own accord rather than something that I’m doing. “Free will is an illusion,” I say. Where did those words come from? Can I feel them as just issuing from me, propelled by neuronal impulses I don’t understand and can’t control, and not as the result of deliberate thought? Sort of, sometimes, but with difficulty.
Part of what makes this exercise uncanny—and why it takes poise and concentration—is that it’s me who’s imagining myself as absent in this way. I’m both the intentional agent who’s exercising the powers of his imagination and the x-ray shadow-figure who lacks intentionality, agency, imagination, and so on.
Something funny is going on here. But I want to emphasize that this is something that I can do. I really can picture myself as a bunch of bone, blood, and tissue moving its limbs and flapping its tongue in accordance with impulses that lie far beneath the level of conscious and deliberate thought. There’s something that it’s like to imagine myself in this way. So what is it like?
If I let go of the question how all this is supposed to fit into a philosophical argument and just run with the imaginative exercise, I find it calming. The thoughts and worries that normally preoccupy me seem distant. They’re the epiphenomena of an organ in the head that’s doing its part to keep the organism churning along.
The exercise has something in common with other experiences of “unselfing,” to borrow a term from Iris Murdoch: becoming deeply absorbed in the beauty of nature or a work of art, sliding into a “flow” state while playing a sport or a musical instrument, meditating. There’s a calm and ease as “the fat relentless ego” (Murdoch again) releases its grip.
One worry about various deterministic scenarios is that they make human behaviour out to be oddly mechanical, which is at odds not just with our experience of ourselves but also at odds with how we want to see ourselves. It’s generally an insult to describe someone’s behaviour as mechanical.
But Murdoch says just this about the fat relentless ego. Our egocentric drives obstruct the patient attention by which we can see our circumstances, and those around us, in their fine-grained particularity. Driven by ego, we become mechanical, pursuing compulsions and chasing fantasies with a self-contained rhythm and energy that’s deaf to the world it’s acting on. If I can let go of the idea that it’s me me me that’s in the driver’s seat, I can move through the world more gracefully.
Free will is a problem for us, as I said, because choice is a problem for us. But choice doesn’t have to be such a heavy burden. Choice has a central place in some modern moral theories but there’s nothing in the nature of ethics itself that compels this focus on choice. It gets relatively scant attention in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for instance. He gives much more attention to character and habituation. The choice you make in the heat of the moment is an expression of habits of character that lie far deeper within you. A person of good character and practical wisdom won’t feel choice as a burden because the right course of action will flow from this deeper source.
In a related way, modern philosophers like Murdoch or Simone Weil think the important issue, ethically speaking, is the quality of attention that we give to a situation. Seeing things clearly leads to clear-sighted action. An emphasis on moral principles and decision procedures encourages us to abstract away from the particularity of our circumstances, which is precisely what we shouldn’t do.
Aristotle and Murdoch and Weil aren’t telling us to imagine ourselves in x-ray. But, as I experienced it, that exercise is one way of experiencing myself less as a creature that chooses and more as one that abides. Afterward I feel less inclined to try to control my circumstances and more inclined to observe and understand them.
This isn’t usually what people have in mind when they say that free will is an illusion. They’re not describing an imaginative stance you can take toward yourself and your actions. They’re trying to characterize how things actually are, no matter what stance you’re taking, and whether you like it or not.
In that phrase, “how things actually are,” there’s an impulse to control. There’s one right way of looking at things. It’s the way that’s supplied by the sciences. That way reveals a world shorn of the illusions of subjectivity and prejudice. You must think that way if you want to get at the truth.
This general line of thinking emerges in many guises, from wide-eyed curiosity about the world to grim smugness. But to the extent that there is some impulse to control, that fat relentless ego is butting in. There’s a danger of intellectual pride, or even arrogance, in claiming that you’ve seen behind the veil and know that free choice is an illusion. If I can take seriously the idea that my utterances aren’t “mine,” I’ll be less attached to insisting on their truth. In that sense, the problem with those who would deny free will is that they don’t take their own claims seriously enough.