Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Free Will and the notion of "could have".

5/11/2019  Update:  My most recent blog post -- A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism -- covers all pertinent issues regarding free will.

I have advanced an argument here for the notion that our consciousness is necessarily causally efficacious. I want to talk on this occasion about free will and more specifically to address a common conception of what it means to have free will -- namely the notion that in any given situation one could have behaved differently from how one actually did behave.

American professor of biology Jerry A. Coyne has written:

I mean it [free will] simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

In my experience this definition that stipulates one has free will if one could have chosen otherwise is a very common one. Unfortunately it is often left unstated as to the precise meaning of this -- as if its meaning were entirely unambiguous. The problem here is how the precise meaning of "could have" is to be construed. Does "could have" mean that I have the capacity to behave in a given way, even though inevitably I will not?  This would be my own position.  Or does it mean that given the precise same circumstances and the precise same physical configuration of the Universe, I need not inevitably make the same choice every time? That is to say if we keep rerunning the tape of my life a sufficiently large number of times up to the choice in question, then I will eventually make a different choice? Expressing it as Jerry Coyne does in terms of the tape of ones life, strongly suggests to me that he means the latter. From my reading around on the subject of free will I also get the impression that there are other philosophers and scientists who share this conception.  Unfortunately this interpretation seems to me to be unintelligible.

Suppose I were to spot a £20 note while I was walking around outside. I would stoop down, pick it up, and put it into my pocket. What if we were to keep replaying the tape of my life an arbitrary large number of times? Would my behaviour ever differ at this point? I can't imagine it would do. Why would it?

Let's consider another scenario. Imagine you could travel backwards in time to some famous historical event. Imagine also that you don't reveal your presence to anyone and you have no impact whatsoever on the environment. In this case these historical figures will say and behave as the history books tell us. We will know their future lives in their entirety. And however many times we revisit a specific time and place, these historical figures will say and behave precisely as they did on all previous occasions.

This also implies that if someone from the future were to covertly observe us, and if we make a mark so that our actions are recorded in the history books of the future, then that time traveller might in principle know precisely what we will do and say at a specific time and place.  And again, should our time traveller keep revisiting that specific time and place, he will not see any variation in anything that we do and say.

Now I would submit that it would be absurd to conclude that these scenarios demonstrate we do not have free will. In the £20 note scenario I would pick it up because of the obvious reason I can purchase goods and services with it. If we rerun the Universe numerous times why would I ever choose differently? Similar reasoning applies to our time travelling thought experiment. If we travel backwards in time, and we do not even disturb the motions of any molecules, then this scenario differs not at all to the one whereby we stay in the present, but we are able -- via some future technology -- to visually view past events "as they happen". Or if aliens
on some exoplanet 100 light years away -- presently viewing the earth via a colossally powerful telescope -- are currently watching events unfold on the earth as they happened 100 years ago. Clearly the events they view would not differ in any way from what we know took place 100 years ago.

So it seems to me that the words "could have" certainly ought not to mean that if I reran the Universe I might have acted differently. When I exercise my free will I deliberately choose a particular course of action. Even where my choice is simply arbitrary, for example I really do not care whether I go right or left when I'm out on a walk, that same slight disposition to turn left will still exist if we reran the Universe.

But it seems to me that Jerry Coyne -- and many other scientists and philosophers who have defined free will in the same way -- do have this meaning of "could have" in mind. But then what they're doing is advancing an unintelligible conception of free will.

At this point Jerry Coyne and others of a likewise opinion might agree with me that such a conception of free will is indeed unintelligible. But they might argue there are no other conceptions of free will which can be rendered intelligible. The arguments I have advanced merely serve to illustrate that human behaviour is as determined as any other physical process or change in the Universe. Hence our future behaviour is as fixed as, for example, the motion of the Earth as it orbits the Sun, or the motion of a boulder as it rolls down a hill.

I think though that such reasoning would be wrong. The mere predictability of someone's behaviour is not typically thought to conflict with commonsensical notions of free will. The more we get to know a friend, the more we will be able to predict his behaviour or the views he will express. However it would be absurd to suggest that this makes him less free, or that he never had any free will in the first place.

What we need to understand is that the predictability that your friend will pick up a £20 note if he spots one on the ground, and the predictability of the path of the Earth as it orbits the Sun, seem to have quite distinct different causes. We regard the behaviour of your friend as being caused by a specific intention in his mind and an end goal -- it is this conscious intent which initiates his behaviour.

But the behaviour of the earth? Well I submit that most of us won't regard that the Earth orbits the Sun because of a conscious intent on the Earth's part, or because it wants to! Typically we regard the Earth as being constrained to follow the path it does. That is it does so either because physical laws govern the Universe or because gravitation represents some force or warping of space-time which compels the Earth to follow the path it does. If the Earth were to suddenly stop in its path, or to orbit the other way, or to jig up and down, this would be considered miraculous, and indeed deeply worrying! This is in stark contrast to the case where I ignore the £20 note on the ground and simply walked on by. The latter would be irrational and it would never happen. But the impossibility of it happening seems to be of a wholly differing nature to the impossibility of the Earth suddenly stopping in it's path round the Sun and jigging up and down. Certainly my failure to pick up the £20 note would not be considered miraculous!

The important thing to bear in mind is that, in contrast to other physical objects, we are not obliged to conclude that a person's voluntary behaviour is wholly caused by physical laws or other external factors.
Given a particular physical state of the Universe, it need not be physical laws coupled with this physical state that wholly determines what we normally take to be our voluntary behaviour. Rather one's voluntary behaviour is caused by the self or consciousness, and this choice will inevitably be a specific unique one given a particular physical state of the Universe.  This also might suggest that a specific unique future exists -- not because we are hapless puppets controlled by physical laws -- but because we do not act randomly but make specific choices in a given situation.  However, as I hope I have made clear, this is entirely consistent with a full-blooded commonsensical conception of free will.

I hasten to add though that I have not shown that such a full-blooded
commonsensical conception of free will exists.  The majority of scientists and philosophers will deny that the origin of our behaviour differs in kind from the rest of the Universe. They are liable to express the view that if physical laws govern the path of the Earth as it orbits the Sun, so too do physical laws govern our behaviour, it's just that we are vastly more complex so it is not so readily apparent that they do so.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Philosophy is important

If an individual never thinks philosophically, never questions his existence, what the world is about, what justifies certain moral stances and other philosophical questions, then what will determine his beliefs in such things? Presumably the prevailing beliefs of his culture. He will trust what he considers to be the most intelligent peoples' stance on such issues. These are likely to be people in the higher echelons of academia and especially what scientists say.

Hence, for example, he is likely to accept that he is merely a sophisticated biological robot with no free will, that science can in principle tell us everything about the world and indeed everything else. He might even accept that there are no objective morals -- that they are merely an expression of emotions, or they merely reflect psychological truths about the way human beings happen to be.

In that case, by not thinking for himself, he is merely absorbing the common wisdom of his culture. This is highly undesirable for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place. So certain beliefs about the world tend to be perpetuated, not necessarily because of their underlying merits, but because there are influences actively discouraging the expression of views which are at variance with generally accepted beliefs. Since the prevailing common wisdom is both rather bleak and also, it seems to me, profoundly wrong, this surely cannot be desirable.

Secondly it is of benefit to be able to understand underlying philosophical issues in and of its own sake. This has the benefit not only of hopefully obtaining a greater understanding of our underlying beliefs about ourselves and the world and other philosophical issues, it also is helpful in developing our critical thinking skills which can be applied in many other aspects of our lives.

And a final brief word on the benefits of philosophy to science. It was Richard Feynman who is alleged to have said: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” I agree that this will be true for the average scientist, certainly. But the truly great scientist who hopes to revolutionalize the way we view reality, must break out of orthodox ways of thinking and truly understand all the philosophical ramifications of competing revolutionary scientific hypotheses. With that in mind perhaps it might be more accurate to say philosophy of science is about as useful to the average scientist as knowing about how the engine works is to the average car driver. But what if your car keeps breaking down? What if the car accelerates when you hit the brakes? Or turns right when you steer left?

Update 26/12/14

I found this link.  The video there can also be found on youtube here.  An excellent video which I'm in entire agreement with.  In the event the links become broken in the future, here is the transcript of the video:

"From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?

The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.

In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.


There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully. They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.


Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.


We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.” 


We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence. Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

5. WE PANIC AND LOSE PERSPECTIVE Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective. The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world. In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now".

Often it's extremely hard to decide what is the rational thing to believe.

It's extraordinarily difficult for most of us to decide what the truth is on many contentious issues. Will we witness catastrophic clima...

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