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A Metaphysics For Freedom by Helen Steward

We exercise free will this issue as Les Reid defends A Metaphysics For Freedom.

‘The Road Not Taken’ is a poem by Robert Frost that describes a moment of choice. He has two woodland paths before him, and he chooses “the one less traveled by.” Quite possibly, Frost was thinking of his own choice of a life as a poet, but the general image applies to all the choices that we make. All through life we have decisions to make, choosing one path rather than another, and those choices give our lives their individual shape. The poem assumes that the future is a blank sheet on which we choose to write our individual life stories.

Professor Ted Honderich could not agree less. In his book On Determinism and Freedom (2005), he argues that the notion of free will that lies behind all such talk of choices and responsibility is incoherent, and cannot be assimilated to the account of physical reality the sciences have arrived at. In particular, Honderich objects to the notion of origination: that is, to the claim that an action can originate from a deliberate, conscious choice without prior physical cause. He argues that any decision is instead in reality an event or series of events in the neural pathways of one’s brain, and that all such events are embedded within physical causal sequences.

Here we see the ancient problem of free will being brought sharply into focus because of the advance of neural science. Brain scan technology, for example, has progressed dramatically in recent years, and with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging we can now watch multi-coloured scans which reveal the shifting patterns of electrical activity in a conscious brain as its owner thinks thoughts and makes choices. The implication, for Honderich, is clear: brains are made of chemicals, and their functioning depends on electric currents. Chemicals and electric currents follow predictable causal sequences: any event in the world of chemicals and electricity is part of a chain of physical causes and effects which unfolds inexorably until the event occurs. So the notion that a conscious agent has in choice the ability to originate an event in the brain free of prior physical causal constraints does not fit with Honderich’s understanding of how the world works – which understanding, he says, is in tune with the scientific world-view. Honderich is thus, as the jargon goes, a determinist, not a libertarian. Libertarians say that free will is an obvious fact, and determinists say that free will is an illusion.

A New Champion of Freedom

The debate between determinists and libertarians has been rumbling on for centuries. One can trace it all the way from Ancient Greece to Enlightenment Europe, through to our own time. The libertarian side of the debate, however, now has a new champion – Helen Steward, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds.

In her book A Metaphysics for Freedom (2012), Dr Steward sets out a revised version of the libertarian position. She also fends off some recent assaults on libertarianism, extends its range to include animals, and corrects some fellow libertarians whose reasoning she finds flawed (including John Searle). The book is closely argued, but it is very readable, and Steward provides many useful examples to illustrate her points. I think her revised libertarianism is a significant development, and her arguments are both fascinating and compelling.

Steward also replies to several recent critiques of libertarianism, including Alfred Mele’s ‘Challenge from Chance’. According to Mele, libertarianism essentially means that Joe did A, but could have done B. However, Mele points out, there is no physical difference that itself makes the difference between Joe choosing A and Joe choosing B (if there were, the apparent choice would be physically determined). Therefore (he concludes), it can only be a matter of sheer chance whether Joe does A or B. Steward replies by elaborating the example. Joe is deciding whether to move in with his girlfriend or not. He weighs up the pros (many) and the cons (none), and decides A: to move in. Where is the element of chance or luck in that? Steward says that Mele offers a false model of deciding, and that his ‘no difference’ argument assumes too much.

Acting For The Agency

Steward is an ‘agency incompatibilist’. She analyses the concept of ‘agency’ – the idea that individual subjects originate physical causal effects (in other words, commence actions) – and she rejects all those interpretations of the idea that try to bring it under a determinist or quasi-determinist perspective. She argues that reasons cause actions, if ‘cause’ is used vaguely; but she also argues that the further determinist step equating reasons with brain states that cause other brain states cannot be taken, because the agent disappears in such an account. Thus she asserts her incompatibilism – the view that agency and determinism cannot be combined – and insists that agency is a higher level process which operates above the level of deterministic physical cause and effect.

Steward’s preferred term for the exercise of freedom is ‘settle’. An agent settles matters by taking action. She says that libertarians have tended to focus too much on deciding and choosing, whereas freedom is a broader concept, better conveyed through the term ‘settle’. Bodily movement can count as action that settles matters. The advantage with this terminology is that animals can settle matters too. Even insects and spiders. Steward considers the case of Portia the jumping spider (p.108), and concludes that its devious hunting technique is most simply explained by applying the concept of agency, to say that the future was open until Portia settled it by pursuing a course of action (and her victim). Steward also accepts that there are grey areas, where it is not clear whether we should see agency or behaviour as purely mechanistic. In the latter case we would expect that some complex algorithm would suffice to predict the behaviour of the organism. This is probably true of one-celled organisms. But if we have to imagine more complex organisms, any increase in complexity requires fantastically complex algorithms with more and more complex adjustments; then, Steward argues, it makes better sense to adopt an explanatory framework that employs the concept of agency.

Because determinists like Honderich, Pinker and Dennett claim that theirs is the only properly scientific perspective, Steward goes on the offensive, examining this claim before rejecting it. She argues that it is mere speculation to say that a complete set of physical laws could even in theory predict all of the future. There is no scientific reason to either make or to accept that claim; to do so is rather a matter of faith. As Steward writes, “We cannot just help ourselves to the assumption that everything that happens is inexorably necessitated by some prior state of the world” (p.240). Steward instead favours Nancy Cartwright’s ‘dappled world’, which replaces the old idea of a world of fixed, elegant, simple laws with a world that is patchy, regional and evolving. Steward further argues that physical laws do not dictate, they merely constrain.

An essential ingredient of Steward’s philosophical position is ‘top-down causation’. Higher level, that is to say, more complex, entities (for example, animals or humans), can cause events and processes to happen in the realm of lower level entities (for example, chemicals and electric currents in brains). When a dog chases a fly, or when Joe moves in with his girlfriend, the complex agent controlling the action causes a vast sequence of events at the level of particles and electric fields, first in the brain, then in the rest of the physical world. Reductionist determinists claim that everything can be described at the level of particles and fields, but again that is mere assertion. Rather, current theoretical understanding requires the use of all the various different types and levels of explanation. Thus, in biology, organisms are treated as hierarchically organised, with the hierarchy ascending from cells, to tissues, to organs, to systems (visual, digestive, etc), and finally to agents – that is, to the whole organism. The higher levels are not reducible to the lower levels, and there is scope for top-down causation – that is to say, for agency.

Revisionist Metaphysics

Steward is refreshingly secular in her metaphysics. In the past, talk of irreducible complexity was often a prologue to the introduction of religious notions of spirits or other supernatural entities. By contrast, Steward emphasises the affinity between her view of lower and higher levels and the different sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, psychology, medicine, and so on. The entities and explanations found in the other sciences do not all reduce to physics. Steward also emphasises the view that biological evolution has produced agency, and free choice is a survival adaptation. In 1997, Steven Pinker dismissed the libertarian point of view as irrelevant because, he claimed, it does not produce a research programme. It is now clear, however, that Steward’s work does exactly that by embedding the concept of agency within the framework of evolutionary biology.

Prior to reading this book, I had long thought that language is a crucial factor in human freedom. Language enables us to describe future courses of action and outcomes, and so to choose between them. I now see things somewhat differently. Steward’s book has not made me relinquish my regard for the role of language in human freedom, but it has made me think again about agency, and extend its scope to include other animals. I now see that the freedom that language confers especially on us is a highly developed form of a widespread capacity for free action that we share with many other species.

I would encourage all fellow libertarians to read this book and take heart from the range, power and coherence of the arguments presented. Those arguments are excellent ammunition for any future debates with determinists over free will and agency. Hoist the book aloft, I say, and let the challenge go out to all those determinists still desperately clinging to their clockwork model of reality: “Read this book and admit the error of your ways! Read it and be free!”

© Les Reid 2014

Les Reid is living freely in Edinburgh, where he is offering an Adult Education course on Humanism as a philosophy for life (not freely, but very reasonably).

A Metaphysics for Freedom by Helen Steward, OUP, 2012, £20 pb, 249pp. ISBN 978-0199552054

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