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Free Will

Free Will Is An Illusion, But Freedom Isn’t

Ching-Hung Woo says freedom is compatible with choices being determined.

We commonly think it obvious that a person facing multiple alternatives can choose any of them, and that the outcome is decided by free will at the moment of decision, rather than being already determined by earlier causes. All the events in the world, however, obey the law of physics, including those that happen inside a brain. If all events in the brain unfold according to classical physics, then free will in the above sense does not exist. This is because classical physics is deterministic: the state of the world at any moment is the inevitable consequence of its state at an earlier moment. Hence the alternatives are only apparently available to the decision-maker, as in fact only a single alternative is destined to be the one chosen.

In quantum physics the so-called probability amplitude evolves according to deterministic laws but the transformation from many possible outcomes to one actual outcome takes place purely by chance. The statistical distribution for such chance events follows strict rules, but the outcome of an individual chance event is unpredictable and cannot be controlled by will. Thus any decision is either the predictable result of earlier causes (which may include quantum chance events) and is not free from determinism, or is itself a quantum chance event and is not willed. Either way, the free will we commonly take for granted is absent. What then is the freedom to choose that we so cherish and which politicians like to invoke at every opportunity?

Not What They Seem
Not What They Seem by Danelle Hellen Gallo
Graphic © Danelle Hellen Gallo 2016 Please visit www.artbydanelle.com

Choice Under Determinism

In order to focus on the essential issues, let us put chance events aside, since, as we have seen, quantum randomness does not rescue free will. In this simplified context, let’s try to see whether our subjective feeling of freedom can be reconciled with physical determinism.

One thing we can’t avoid noticing is that we have the experience of making choices. In fact, each choice consists of two stages. In stage one we conceive alternatives, and in stage two we are aware that we have picked one of them. Often the option picked is the one whose consequences we prefer over the consequences of its alternatives, but the comparison of consequences is not always done consciously. Furthermore, both genetic predispositions and past experiences play a role in forming an individual’s preferences, so the causative factors leading to the making of a choice are complex. The conclusion is that although we do experience choice-making – that transition from stage one to stage two – this doesn’t imply the absence of determining causative factors. We also have the impression that we could have chosen differently. But once a choice has been made, what sense is there to this idea? That is, although a decision-maker faced with the same set of alternatives again may make a different selection the second time, that would be because the overall situation, including the state of brain and mind, has changed. But once again, this choice is the result of previous causes. Hence the existence of free will in the sense of an autonomous force at the very moment of decision unconstrained by past causes, is not required to explain our actual experience of choosing. Our experience of choice-making is perfectly compatible with determinism if we accept that the transition from stage one to stage two – that is, from multiple possible options to the one actually chosen – is, like any other kind of event in the world, the result of previous causes.

Once choice is properly understood in this way – as being causally, physically determined – we can proceed to consider the notion of free choice in wider ways. If a man holds a gun to my head and demands my wallet, and I choose to obey him rather than to try and fight, that’s a ‘coerced choice’. In contrast with this, we can say that a free choice is one that is not coerced. Ultimately, freedom in this sense depends on the absence of conflict between the choice-maker’s nature, character, or core desires and the intended consequences of their actions. Since we are not averse to admitting that our nature is the result of our genetic predispositions and our past circumstances, this notion of freedom can readily coexist with the hidden operation of physical determinism, and also with the fuller scientific worldview where physical determinism is supplemented by quantum randomness.

Compatibilism & Moral Responsibility

Still, how can I be responsible for the consequences of such free choices, when the chains of events that cause them were determined outside myself, beginning long ago? The answer is hinted at in the word ‘responsible’. The president of a nation may take responsibility for his administration’s bad handling of relief work after a natural disaster, for example, even though he was not personally involved in any of the snafus occurring at the operational level. Analogously, although many aspects of my being pull me in different directions and argue with one another during the making of a difficult decision, there is a relatively stable center that I identify as my self, and this recognition means that I can take or own the responsibility for each decision that’s made by me, even through or after the competition of all these factors. This is an appropriate expediency, since the detailed tracing of all the responsible factors is practically impossible.

Xanadu and Coleridge
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” Samuel Taylor Coleridge became addicted to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) as a result of being prescribed it by his doctor for toothache. So was he entirely responsible for this poem written under its influence?

The nature of the self is obviously complex. Some people have a narrow sense, and some an expansive sense, of the responsible self, and even the same person’s self-perception may change over time. Or for example, a drug addict caught in a crime may claim “My habit made me do it!” In so saying he’s treating his habit as if it’s not a part of him. However, in pondering his responsibility, the jury ought to take into consideration whether his habit was formed with his knowledge or without it (it might sometimes be a result of taking medicine his doctor prescribed). In other words, the jury should assign responsibility for the crime not just on the basis of whether the recent criminal act was itself a completely uncoerced choice, but also on whether some past free acts of the accused contributed to him being in a state where he committed the present crime.

In contrast to this addict, some people discover room for freedom – that is, for choices compatible with their nature – even when they’re under strong coercion. When Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax, he felt he was still free because his mind could go anywhere, and, as he observed dryly, his mind constituted “all that was dangerous.” And Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that Frenchmen were never freer than when France was under the Nazi occupation. How so? Well, the occupation created opportunities for defiance, and whether to risk defiance or not is a significant choice; hence Frenchmen were freer in the sense of possessing a richer menu of significant choices. The wiggle room allowed under coercion, however, is not always large enough for a choice to be meaningfully called ‘free’. Sophie’s choice, in William Styron’s novel of that title, was to sacrifice one of her children or the other to the gas chamber. Reasonable people would regard the alternatives offered to her by the Nazi doctor as not much of a choice at all, and absolve Sophie of any responsibility for the death of the non-chosen child.

Adopting the absence of coercion instead of the absence of determinism as the essence of freedom gets us out of a conflict with the prevalent scientific worldview. Nonetheless, this notion still captures the importance of freedom – as a condition that enables a person to be true to himself, and also as a criterion for judging whether it is fair to hold a person responsible for their actions.

© Prof. Ching-Hung Woo 2016

The late Ching-Hung Woo was for many years Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland.

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