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Kinds of free will

Jonah Lehrer points to a post by philosopher Galen Strawson at the NYT blog on the nonexistence of free will. Strawson’s argument is basically that actions are performed for (causal) reasons that are outside our control, and so we have no free will.

I agree that our actions are performed for reasons, and that they are (very nearly always) outside our control if by that one means that they are reasons we did not choose. I am what I am physically, and this is largely the outcome of prior dispositions from my biological and cultural heredity. I did not choose to be an Australian white male human mammal etc. So when I behave because I am this sort of thing, that is not a free choice, of course. Moreover, I developed as an individual in a context that shaped, if not determined (to avoid begging the question) my preferences. I probably enjoy chocolate because my neural chemistry responds to theobromine, and vanilla ice cream because I associate the sugars with vanilla flavouring; thus give me chocolate chip vanilla icecream and my biological, cultural and personal history disposes me to like it.

So it’s a knockdown argument: I had no choice in these preferences, so I am not responsible for my actions based upon them. I am a preference expressing machine that must, perforce, behave as I do. Ergo nobody should be punished for their actions, as they cannot but be what they are (goes the argument).

Now, I certainly choose my actions based upon my preferences. I would not act otherwise: if I had no connection between my preferences and my actions, then I would act entirely arbitrarily and without reason. But my preferences are not fixed for all time. Humans are developmental organisms; we are always in statu nascendi. As I develop, sanctions, both positive and negative, affect how a normal human develops. As a hominid, I strive to be like the successful members of my tribe or troop. I am discouraged from actions that the norms of the tribe or troop exclude. And as a member of a social group, such sanctions affect the norms just to the degree of influence I as an individual have. So responsibility will tend to have a causal effect upon both my actions and the norms of my group.

In other words, if I am the sum total of the influences upon me as I develop, including my genetic and neural development, then I should be held accountable for my actions, in order to modify my preferences and to prevent preferences that are dysfunctional for the group from spreading. And this is a deterministic position to take. It suggests to me that we are equivocating upon the notion of “free will” somewhat.

The evidence of modern science is that we are mostly caused in our actions (I assume some noise is involved so that we are not frozen into fixed behavioural patterns and thus unable to respond to novel conditions and problem sets; and furthermore I assume that noisiness is itself the outcome of prior evolutionary success). We cannot deny this any more. The evidence is now in. The issue therefore is not whether we have uncaused actions or preferences. That debate is over. Let’s call this causal determinism.

But it does not follow that because we are causally determined we must be considered morally determined. There is a moral sense of “free will” that I think is crucial here: that one’s choices are not constrained to the point that one cannot tell if a choice is a moral one or not. In short, that one is not coerced. Some set of actions will be coerced, by moral monsters either internally (mental illness, compulsions, lack of moral knowledge) or externally (Chicago gangsters pointing guns at your children, children coerced into war or prostitution, terrorists forcing you to make the lesser of two immoral choices, etc.). In these causally determined cases you are made to make an immoral choice for which you are not morally responsible.

But in other causally determined cases, we are not morally coerced. We act (according to our preference sets) without anyone else making us choose an immoral act, and so any immorality is our own doing. Since holding someone responsible changes their developmental environment and changes the moral norms of the group, the mere fact that they (and we) are causally determined in the actions taken does not mean we are morally determined. So I think that we can be morally free even if we are causally bound. The two meanings of “free” here are distinct and not coupled.


  1. Allen Hazen Allen Hazen

    The Galen Strawson piece is in a regular philosophy feature the NY Times started recently. There is a reply to it at

    by a William Egginton (a professor at Johns Hopkins) that, as far as I can understand, says that — since Kant showed that neither science nor theology can really grasp the really real — we shouldn’t worry about determinism because we just know we are free. Frankly, I prefer your reply, John!

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Thanks, Allen. From you that means something.

  2. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    I was under the impression that the concept of free will was essentially a religious one: although God blah blah blah, we are still free to act however. No doubt I have it all wrong, since this is a Christian concept, no? and I am a Jew and not widely read in such things.

    However, as an atheist I reject the entire notion that free will is something that we are *allowed* to have.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      It certainly began as a religious issue, and that is how it was mediated to philosophy, but the issues are able to be discussed with God bracketed out.

  3. “Ergo nobody should be punished for their actions, as they cannot but be what they are.”

    If you apply this reasoning to both the criminal and to the punisher you get a something like a moral contradiction: the criminal should not be punished because they were not responsible for their action, and the punisher should not be condemned for punishing the criminal because they too were not responsible for their action.

  4. AK AK

    In the most interesting cases, there’s a conflict of incentives: e.g. the desire to follow the rules (act morally) vs. the desire for a forbidden pleasure, or the desire to perform some act vs. the fear/anticipation of punishment. In these cases the brain probably (IMO) does a balancing act between (or among) motivations, which can be (and often is, IMO) finally determined by quantum noise at the neural level.

    From a quantum dynamic perspective, AFAIK this is truly random.

  5. Chris' Wills Chris' Wills

    If I understand him correctly.

    Galen Strawson is saying that he wrote the article because it was forced upon him.

    He passed his exams because it was fore-ordained, not due to his efforts.

    All his that he is and will be is otwith his control and that he bears no moral responsibility for his actions what so ever.

    Did he think this when he wrote the article?

    Even if he is correct, society should still punish those who break its rules. For the simple reason that doing so helps removes those whose action are inimical to the collective.

  6. I think your position is closer to Strawson’s than you recognise. He too says in the end we must take accountability for our actions even if causally we have “no control.”

    You invoke (not by name) a systems approach, where an individual’s actions feed back into the social environment, becoming part of the causal chain that influences later decisions. But this kind of interaction can occur without any choices or decisions (as in, for example, plant biology, or weather, or fluid dynamics). It’s not clear to me where moral agency arises in your scheme, since we could still describe every step “from the outside,” as though there was no agent. How do you differentiate your view from epiphenomalism, for example? An Epiphenomenalist would also say he could evaluate whether an act was moral or not, but it doesn’t follow from this he could do anything about it.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Again, I say that the issue is whether the meaning of “choice” is being equivocated upon. A decision can be fully determined – indeed I fail to see how one could make a decision without it being an expression of one’s “nature”, which is to say one’s causal properties. So any system that controls its own behaviour in a feedback control loop “decides” what to do. Humans make decisions. These are acts that have moral implications. Morality doesn’t arise from physics, I think, but from social and semantic interactions.

      As to epiphenomenalism, I think that it is based on a category error – that consciousness is somehow separated from the causal process. Agency, whatever it is, is a physical process. The mere fact that we can describe, say, a cell as an aggregate of molecules, which I think we can, doesn’t mean there is no cell; it is instead an explanation of the cell. The fact that we can describe moral agency in terms of substrate processes doesn’t mean it disappears.

    • “Morality doesn’t arise from physics, I think, but from social and semantic interactions. ”

      That’s the heart of it, I think. The “social” part is vulnerable to Darwinist logic, which flows back into determinism, but the semantic part is crucial. Morality exists as a conversation between actuality and potentiality, made possible by symbolic ideation. (Which is why we don’t judge snakes, dogs, or tsunamis). Determinism is unconcerned with potentiality altogether.

  7. “In these cases the brain probably (IMO) does a balancing act between (or among) motivations, which can be (and often is, IMO) finally determined by quantum noise at the neural level.”

    I think the quantum randomness card gets played a little too much inre protecting free will from the sinister implications of determinism (which I don’t think are that sinister at all for exactly the reasons highlighted by this post). As it is we know that our physiology is contingent on the rapid and potent control and suppression of randomness, and no more so than in the firing activity of neurons and muscle. Yes, a train of rogue action potantial can fire here or there, but whether you’re talking central nervous system or cardiac muscle, the wider system does considerable work to ensure that such random events never coalesce to a degree that will significantly affect physiological outcomes (when they’re potentially highly deleterious). Indeed, it appears that physiology doesn’t even tolerate non-linear deterministic shenanigans, which also tend to result in pathologies if allowed to manifest themselves beyond the constraints of homeostasis (just ask a cardiologist).

    Some sleep scientists might argue that there’s randomness in dreams, but I’m not convinced of this either based on the evidence presented.

    My thinking is that even the most difficult of decisions one way or another are for the most part resolved in a strictly deterministic manner.

  8. Metaphysics aside, there are a couple of facts about living things that are relevant to the issue of free will from a practical point of view.

    1. People and, for that matter, animals are normally controlled or influenced through their own desires. I may not be a monad in full Leinizian splendor; but if you don’t have a sumo wrestler handy, you’re pretty much stuck with offering me rewards or threatening me with punishments in order to affect my behavior. One hardly needs quantum mechanics to account for this everyday sense in which people and animals are free. (This consideration bears on the old notion that the higher up the great chain of being you happen to be, the more you are determined by reasons rather than causes.)

    2. Discussions of ends and means often suggest that we can choose our means, but we’re stuck with our ends. In fact–and I’m merely making observations about matters of fact here–people choose their ends all the time. A great part of mental life consists in the ego’s re-negotiating of our purposes. (If you can be with the one you love, love the one you’re with, etc.)

  9. jeff jeff

    Seems to me that your position assumes physicalist causality, and probably also reductionism, since you believe your actions are caused by brain chemistry, and brain chemistry is caused by lower-level physics, etc. But there are also many other interwoven causes difficult to pin down to macro or micro (evolutionary abstractions, psychological abstractions, etc). That’s fine as far as it goes, but some physicists and philosophers have different takes on causality. It’s a subtle topic, as we have touched on before.

    BTW, the presence or absence of physical determinism has little to do with the concept of free will. You can have a random universe and still not have free will. IMO, it has more to do with philosophy of mind.

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