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The Things We Do and Why We Do Them by Constantine Sandis

Constantine Sandis’s critiques of our actions are under scrutiny by Les Reid.

A man is sitting in a restaurant, looking at the menu. “I wonder what my neurons are going to choose tonight,” he says. That joke comes courtesy of John Searle, at the expense of all the determinists, who say that free will is an illusion and that human action is no different from any caused physical process. By opposing them, Searle takes the side of the libertarians (also known as ‘Free Willies’, but not in a serious publication like this), who are opposed to determinism in claiming that conscious agents have a power of choice which chemicals in a reaction do not.

The debate between determinists and libertarians has been rumbling on for centuries. It was heard in Ancient Greece, and among medieval theologians, but it has become more insistent and challenging since the Enlightenment and the rise of science. The methods of science do not easily accommodate the concept of free will. Science analyses nature on the basis that physical processes are regular and predictable and can be explained entirely in terms of physical cause and effect. But the bits of human behaviour which are generally agreed to be completely physically caused – for example, automatic reflexes – are also generally agreed to be quite distinct from actions which people deliberately carry out for some reason. The difference between a blink and a wink illustrates the distinction. Reflexes can be explained by causes (a fly approaching my eye caused me to blink); deliberate action is explained by reasons (I winked to another person to signal my friendly intentions). Libertarians therefore conclude that determinism must be wrong because it is simply a fact that people do perform deliberate actions for reasons which they can spell out, and not simply because they are caused to do so by physical influences.

Some philosophers, called compatibilists, have tried to escape from the age-old wrangle by declaring that both sides are right. They could be seen as peace-makers, except they are usually denounced by both determinists and libertarians as beneath-contemptabilists because they seem to advocate having your metaphysical cake and eating it. The usual line taken by compatibilists is that determinists and libertarians are talking at cross purposes – they appear to be contradicting each other, but in fact they’re talking about different things. The task for the compatibilist is then to persuade us that there is a perspective from which determinism is true and another perspective from which libertarianism is true, and that both perspectives are equally valid.

If I read his recent book The Things We Do And Why We Do Them correctly, Constantine Sandis, of Oxford Brookes University, is a compatibilist. He rejects the either/or format of the traditional version of the free will problem, and argues instead that there can be many different explanations for the same phenomenon, all equally valid. He illustrates this point with an amusing two-page list of possible explanations for the chicken crossing the road. I particularly enjoyed the Hemingway explanation, which treats the chicken as a Tragic Hero. It crossed the road… “To die. In the rain.” More seriously, Sandis cites Steven Rose, the biologist, who distinguishes between the explanations given by different species of biologist – physiological, ethnological, developmental, evolutionary and molecular. They may be talking about the same biological phenomenon, but they’re asking different questions, and so their explanations are different. Similarly, Sandis says the free will debate can be resolved if we regard determinism and libertarianism as different, but equally valid, kinds of explanation.

This ‘varieties of explanation’ strategy is not new for compatibilists. For example, it has some affinities with distinguishing between kinds of ‘stance’, as Dennett does (one of the few modern writers on this issue whom Sandis does not mention). As well as saying that different explanations are equally valid, Sandis also says that there are different ways of describing the phenomenon (say, as an act, or action, or a bit of behaviour) even before we apply any explanation to it. He says that it has been the failure to recognise this deep plurality of descriptions and explanations which has been the source of the interminable debate over free will. Both determinists and libertarians have missed crucial distinctions, he says, and as a result they have conflated things which should have been kept separate. Sandis identifies and labels several of those alleged conflations. For instance, according to him, it is a mistake to say that a person’s actions consist of the things that he/she does. Thus Bernard Williams was wrong to say that an external explanation of why Owen joined the army is inadequate compared to Owen’s own reasons and beliefs. Sandis accuses Williams of conflating what Owen did with his joining the army (p.59). I wonder, does Williams miss the point? Or does Sandis?

The Limits of Determinism

As a long-term (and perhaps therefore old-fashioned) libertarian, I found the arguments that Sandis puts forward here challenging and thought-provoking. That there can be a plurality of valid explanations seems undeniable to me. It suits a libertarian well to say that there are causal explanations for simple physical processes and intentional explanations for human action. But I could not agree with him, nor with compatibilists in general, over the scope of deterministic explanations. He seems to have no problem with a thorough-going deterministic account of human behaviour. He accepts as true the causalist (determinist) claim that “The events of our doing things must be explained causally” (p.47). No doubt he would accuse me of conflating ‘the events of our doing things’ with ‘the actions we perform’, but I am loath to concede so much ground to the determinist viewpoint.

Determinism, it seems to me, creates a false model of reality as a vast clockwork machine. All of reality is said to proceed inevitably from situation A to situation B and so on, just as turning cog A in a machine causes cog B to turn and so on. This clockwork model achieved its greatest plausibility when Newton’s physics reigned supreme. Newtonian physics explained a vast array of phenomena with a few basic laws. The success of those laws implied that events in the physical world unfold according to predictable and inevitable patterns. Then, since our bodies, and especially our brains, are composed of chemicals and operate through electrical currents, it was concluded that human behaviour is no different from any other physical process. So argued La Mettrie in 1748 in L’Homme Mechanique (Man The Machine), and a long line of materialists and determinists have followed suit.

But Newton has been superseded. Now scientists accept that Newtonian mechanics works for physical processes on a certain ‘local’ scale, but its scope is not boundless. On a very large scale, it is relativity physics that we must use, not Newtonian; and on a very small scale, it is quantum physics, not Newtonian. It is therefore a mistake to extrapolate from the situations where Newtonian mechanics does apply to assert that all of reality fits into that model. Likewise, determinists are wrong to assert that deliberate action necessarily fits under the clockwork Newtonian model too. It may perhaps instead be due to quantum mechanical processes in the brain, for instance.

When libertarians mention quantum physics, determinists invariably miss the point. They think that free will is being equated with uncertainty, and gleefully point out that random events could not produce deliberate actions. But that is not the point. The point is that there is a boundary to the application of Newtonian physics, and so to clockwork physical causality. The clockwork model does not have a universal fit – which is just what we libertarians have maintained all along.

The preceding discussion leaves you with a choice, dear reader. You can read Sandis for yourself and see if you agree with my highly contentious reasons for agreeing with part of what he says, but parting company from him soon after. Or you can not read him, and thus never really know for sure if his intricate arguments are actually more compelling that I have realised. It’s your free choice, as we libertarians would say. And for once I am pretty sure that Sandis would agree with me.

© Les Reid 2013

Les Reid teaches Philosophy and Humanism as part of the Adult Education programme in Edinburgh.

The Things We Do and Why We Do Themby, Constantine Sandis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 248 pp. $80 hb, ISBN-978-0230522121.

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