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Tallis in Wonderland

How On Earth Can We Be Free?

Raymond Tallis wrote this column of his own free will.

“We know our will is free, and there’s an end on it!” Dr Johnson harrumphed, dismissing those who pretended to think otherwise. Of course, that is not the end of it, and Johnson knew this. Arguing with his biographer Boswell, he famously observed that “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” He meant that experience discredits theory; but for some the boot is on the other foot. For them, the theoretical arguments prove that our experience of acting freely is an illusion.

Look at the facts, they say. Are we not parts of a causally closed universe? Everything that happens – including our supposedly free actions – is a material event caused by one prior to it, and the chain of prior events extends backwards beyond anything we ourselves can have brought about. The universe of which we are a part unfolds according to physical laws that are (almost by definition) unbreakable. How therefore could there be any possibility that we (who after all rely on causation and natural laws for our actions to bring about their desired consequences) could deflect the order of events, or be the origin of events that we could count as our own?

Stop right there. Before we give up on our freedom, we need to test the assumptions that the universe (including the human world) is causally closed, and that we are pieces of physical nature entirely subject to its laws.

First, however, let us set aside the defence of freedom based on recent developments in physics. Some philosophers have argued that the replacement of causation by randomness governed by probabilities at the quantum level opens up the causally closed world, and allows freedom to sneak in between the cracks. But that really doesn’t help. Nobody I know of is a subatomic particle; and nobody, surely, is suggesting that such particles are free. Equally unhelpful is the appeal to the unpredictable behaviour of complex systems to suggest that the material world is not deterministic. If unpredictability were sufficient for freedom, then weather systems (notoriously chaotic) would be some of the freest entities on earth. Yet I am not persuaded that Hurricane Katrina was responsible for the damage it wreaked. No. What free will requires is not randomness or unpredictability, but control. What’s more, loosely textured chaotic laws would not rescue agency, given that we need nature to be utterly reliable if we are to carry out our intentions.

Picking Out Causes

In order to make a space for agency, is it necessary then magically to prise open a causally closed world and evade the laws of nature? We can answer this question, in the negative, by examining the assumptions within it.

The key assumption is that the totality of things is nothing more than a dense, even seamless, network of physical causes originating with the Big Bang and unfolding according to physical laws. This is incontrovertible only if we think of the world as it is objectively represented in physical science – reduced to mere magnitudes and drained of consciousness and meaning. As physical sciences advance, that world does indeed seems to close more tightly. But if this were the whole story, then it would be difficult to see how the very notions of ‘cause’ and of ‘laws’ could arise, since events and patterns of events would have to identify themselves as ‘causes’ and ‘laws’ respectively. Where would this reflective distance come from? Even less could we imagine causes being picked out and used as levers or handles, and laws of nature being exploited, as they are in everyday life. No-one, surely, can deny that we use events to bring about other events, and do so in the light of both everyday and scientific knowledge of the law-like regularities in the material world. So there is a space in which laws are visible and causes are opportunities. This sounds like the space of agency.

Determined determinists will be unconvinced. They will insist that there is no fundamental difference between my falling downstairs and my walking downstairs in order to tell you something. So we need to look harder at what is involved in our deliberate use of naturally occurring, material events as causes to bring about desired effects. The causes of events have to be picked out, and what picks them out is their salience – their relevance as means to, or parts of means to, a particular end. And we exploit causes in a very sophisticated manner. Writing would not be possible without the laws of mechanics – and certainly does not transgress them – but the laws of mechanics do not fully explain why the writing occurs; even less its intended meaning or effects.

Possibilities of Action

Ordinary actions are built up in a complex way, often with a hierarchical arrangement of parts, sub-ordinate elements serving super-ordinate purposes. For example, a series of causal interactions between my feet and the ground adds up to a journey to a gym, where I can, through a nexus of intended movements, interact with a device such as a treadmill in order to postpone the time when I might fall ill. Such actions incorporate vast numbers of physical events that are requisitioned as causes to bring about certain effects. The events would not have been brought together and arranged in a certain order without a sustained and sustaining intention – a goal that makes them intelligible. By contrast, the equally numerous components of a brute physical process such as an avalanche rumbling down a mountain, consist of causally interacting events that require no intelligibility for them to have happened in such concert.

I take it that even determinists do not deny that we really do have goal-directed behaviour. But some will still be unpersuaded, and want to treat the goal towards which actions are directed as not being located in the future but originating in the past of agents, biologically and culturally programming them to behave in a certain way. It seems unlikely however that a causally closed material world – even one that has been biologically inflected – could transform the push of the past into the pull of an envisaged future. However, my wish to stay healthy that requisitions the complex succession of events called ‘going to the gym’ is a wish explicitly located in a general future, and formed in the space of reasons where I first learned about how to keep healthy.

Moreover, the space of reasons is itself located in a wider space: that of possibility. Free agents can make choices because they can envisage possibilities to choose between and selectively realise. The causally closed material world does not contain possibilities: it only has actualities. Possibilities exist only so far as they are entertained by conscious beings. Free agents, then, are free because they select between imagined possibilities, and use actualities to bring about one rather than another. The vast community of minds that is the reality in which human agents live – mediated by a multitude of sign systems, technologies, and institutions – sustains endless parallel possible worlds alongside the actual material one. Crucially, the world of possibility has temporal dimensions not found in the world of physical causation. Agents and their free actions are steeped in tensed time, unknown to the physical world. This encompasses the explicit presence of individual and collective pasts and futures, and the communal present that divides past from future.

The realisation of possibilities by turning material events into causes-as-levers may be very indirect indeed. The fear of a heart attack that makes sense of the cause-requisitioning travel to the gym is motivated by an imagined future to which at present nothing corresponds in the material world, where, as Parmenides might have said, only what is actual is real. Intelligibility, the entertainment of possibilities, and temporal depth/tensed time, have no place in the material reality of the causally closed world revealed to science; and yet they are indisputably real aspects of ordinary actions. No wonder the free will that is built on them also seems to have no place in the causally closed world. Picking out and requisitioning causes is not itself reducible to a series of causes, and yet it is undeniable that we do it all the time. We not only approach effects through causes – look to see what effects are produced through what causes – we also approach causes via their desired effects – envisaging the cart to which we attach the desired horse, so to speak.

gym baby
At the gym: movements with causes AND intentions

Beyond the Haze of Determinism

Those who deny free will can do so only by looking straight past the basic and undeniable features of everyday agency. They do, however, have one more shot in their locker. All activity, they will argue, is mediated by the body and, in particular, by the brain: both events that are typically thought of as unfree – such as having an epileptic fit – and those that are typically regarded as free – such as deciding to go to the doctor to seek advice about the epileptic fit – are associated with (physical) brain activity. The determinists conclude that all actions are therefore wired into the causally closed material world. The apparent difference between the passivity of having a seizure and the activity of talking to the doctor about it is therefore unreal. But we could turn this argument on its head. Given that the temporal depth of actions is real (their beginning, middle and end are necessarily co-present, in order to make sense of each other); and given that the entertainment of explicit possibilities is real; and given that the difference between having a fit and seeking medical help for it is also real, it is obvious that any account of the universe as a closed system of material causes is incomplete. If the laws of physical nature were the whole story about what happens even in human life, it would be reasonable to ask by what cause part of this causally closed world came to the conclusion that it was part of a causally closed world; by what laws it arrived at the laws of nature, and learned how to exploit them; and, more specifically, what caused those who feel they are free to arrive at this illusion. Claiming that the illusion of freedom carries evolutionary benefits because feeling responsible for our actions promotes survival by making us feel more powerful (and behave more ethically) only raises further questions. Why should magic thinking – imagining that we are doing things that were going to happen anyway – deflect the course of events by altering our behaviour, given that nothing else does so? And by the way, how did part of the causal network conspire to benefit itself by deluding itself that it was controlling other parts?

I fear that by now the ghost of Dr Johnson has long lost patience with me. And well he might. He knows that in practice nobody really believes we are not free. Why, if we were not free, or did not believe we were, would we bother arguing the case? What would we hope to change? After all, persuading another by argument that she is not free is a sophisticated, if self-refuting, exercise of free will.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2015

Raymond Tallis’s latest book is The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic). His website is raymondtallis.com.

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