Free will, determinism, and moral responsibility.
As a pragmatic, empirical physicalist, I try to take an evidence-based and reasoned approach to morality. In the first part of this series, I claimed that objective morality is a principle that operates exclusively at the level of species survival.
But how can morality ever be objective? After all, isn’t something that’s seen as moral in one society repugnant to another?
The dictionary defines “objective” as “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” We could extend that by saying “personal feelings or codified societal/cultural norms.”
If we want to build a case for an objective morality, we need to avoid personal/societal opinion and stick to facts. But how do we know what are “facts?”
The dictionary defines a “fact” as “a thing that is indisputably the case.” This strikes me as too vague for our purposes so let’s try to make it clearer. Objective facts are measured by reference to the actual real universe. So when we say something is “objective” or “factual” or “true,” it is by comparing a claim to an observation of the real universe. That’s the only way to be objective; there is no other.
By “objective morality” then, I mean “behavior that can be shown to be virtuous, good, or correct by looking at the result in the real universe.” In part 1 of this series, I claimed that it’s impossible to say whether or not a particular behavior is objectively virtuous, good, or correct for an individual. There is no objective basis for such a judgment.
Take murder, for example. Is there a universal objective consequence if an individual murders? Clearly not, though there may be social consequences (providing there is a social prohibition against murder and an effective system for identifying, prosecuting, and punishing a murderer). In many early societies without such effective social systems, murder frequently had few, if any, bad consequences.
On the other hand, there are clear, universal, objective species-level consequences for some behaviors. For example, eating all your offspring. For mortal, sexually-reproducing species, the universe (or Nature, if you will) “punishes” a species that eats all its offspring. The punishment is extinction. Such behavior in a species literally will not permit it to survive within the existing laws of Nature in the real universe. It cannot be virtuous, good, or correct for the species because it leads to its extinction or non-survival. The resulting extinction is an objective fact of the universe. Eating all your offspring is objectively not virtuous.
This illustrates how an empirical physicalist can search for objective morality when thinking about their own species.
In the previous article I also acknowledged the difficulty in applying this kind of reasoning about morality to individuals. If objective morality only applies to a species as a whole, not to its individual members, how are we to choose what is virtuous behavior? Without an individual objective basis for moral behavior, are we free to do whatever we want?
In the previous article, I quoted a Darian Leigh lecture from “The Reality Thief”:
“It turns out that nature does not care too much about individual members of any species except as they may contribute to the survival of the species as a whole. However, as individuals of an intelligent species, we can choose to synchronize our individual behaviors with behaviors that are important to the species as a whole. We can attend to the needs of our young; we can be responsible shepherds of our environment; we can develop diverse skills and talents; and we can appreciate diversity in others, even if we don’t like their behavior very much.”
Can we choose to do good instead of bad?
Do we have the free will to choose “good” instead of “bad”? Are we responsible for the choices we make?
Let’s think about free will in the context of whether or not the universe is deterministic. If everything were completely determined, if fate were inevitable, there could be no free will. Such an argument can be used in discussions of God. If God “knows” everything that will happen, the universe is deterministic (at least to someone with His level of knowledge), and there is no free will.
Only a non-deterministic universe can host free will.
Luckily, at the deepest sub-atomic level, real matter in the universe is non-deterministic or probabilistic. At its most basic level, chance rules. Heisenberg Uncertainty limits how much we can even hypothetically know about our universe; the best we can ever do sometimes (e.g. for the location of an electron) is to provide a probability distribution.
So, there is almost certainly some freedom of choice in our decisions.
Free will is obviously constrained in humans in the real universe. At best, we select from a set of realistic or feasible options (at least, the ones that occur to us) and those options are often severely limited. Don’t believe me? Okay, I’d like you to will yourself to travel into the center of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and then return to tell me what it’s like. If that’s too hard, we could pick someplace closer like my favorite cafe in Cuenca. Clearly, “free will” doesn’t mean the will or ability to do anything; exercising our free will is constrained by the realistic options that are open to us in the real universe.
But free will is even more constrained by the capabilities and characteristics of our own mind. I challenge you not to see the word “elephant” in this sentence. Okay, maybe that wasn’t fair (to be honest, I also chose a picture of the cutest baby elephant I could find to help set up your expectations). It was impossible to predict what I was going to say without seeing the pattern of the self-referential sentence. But, now that you’ve seen that sentence structure, I challenge you not to see the word “rhinoceros” in this sentence. Hard, isn’t it, controlling your mind with your will?
Think of your favorite ice cream flavor. Maybe it’s chocolate and you don’t like strawberry very much at all. Can you use your free will to consciously change your mind about that? To make strawberry your new favorite flavor and to dislike chocolate? Hard to do, if not impossible.
So free will doesn’t allow you to do anything that isn’t physically feasible and it doesn’t even give you much control over your own mental processes. What good is it? Is it even free?
Neuroscience has much to say about the biological basis of free will. Sam Harris in “The Moral Landscape” says:
“The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”
One operational test to determine whether or not we have any free will (irrespective of its biological basis) would be to see if we could make a computer program that would emulate your conceptual processes well enough to predict your every decision. (Of course, if you knew about this program, it would affect your subsequent decisions, so that’s problematic.)
I think what I would conclude is that the factors that go into an individual making a non-trivial, non-repetitive decision are sufficiently complex as to make a predicting program very difficult, if not impossible. For me, that’s “free will” enough.
One big issue in the discussion of free will is whether or not people can choose good behavior over bad behavior. If we have no free will, how can we be held responsible in front of the law for our actions? I would say, if we could make a perfect predicting program that would take your genetic predispositions, your environment, all effects on your cognitive data structures and predict what you would do, then the burden of responsibility would actually shift elsewhere. If society can predict perfectly what you’d do in a situation and doesn’t prevent you from that situation then, at least, it shares responsibility with you for your action.
In that regard, while we can’t perfectly predict individual behavior, we certainly can statistically predict some kinds of behavior in certain populations. If society were honest with itself, it would recognize its share of the responsibility. I mean really, if a society reduces social mobility, provides crappy education, has few employment opportunities, floods a sub-population with the need to display wealth, and then is surprised when its members turning to selling drugs to break out of their poverty and isolation, the society is run by fools.
Our tendency to ascribe behavior to the free will exercised by the independent human agent, and thereby to assign credit or blame, reminds me of proximate and distal causes.
Let’s take an example of a pile of sand. I drop grains of sand onto a tabletop, slowly building up a pile of sand. Eventually, the pile becomes unstable and collapses (the physics of this are fascinating). Now, if one is a “strict” reductionist and says everything about how the pile behaves is known from how grains of sand behave, well that’s just stupid.
The behavior of the pile of sand is a function of the sand grains, the tabletop, gravity, and the structural relationship between these things. If one is a reductionist in the sense of seeing that the components and their relationships together determine the behavior of the aggregate, this would be my view. Such aggregate behavior is *emergent* from the components and their relationships. There is no single component you can use to understand the structural integrity of the pile of sand.
If you knew the properties of the components (sand grains, table tops, gravity, neurons, synapses, etc.) you might be able to deduce their aggregate behavior, but many properties aren’t obvious except in the aggregate. The friction of sand grains arises from edges and microfractures in a way that isn’t obvious in a single grain. But you can study behavior in small aggregates and extrapolate to larger ones.
So, imagine you’re building this increasingly unstable sand pile and you add one final grain. The whole pile collapses in an avalanche. Was the last grain responsible for “causing” the avalanche. For sure, it was the proximate cause, the grain that broke the pile’s structural integrity. But, wasn’t it almost inevitable that if you built a highly-unstable pile, eventually one grain would cause it to fall? Does the responsibility lie with the single grain or with all the grains that contributed to the instability?
Free will, societal influences, and responsibility
Sometimes, we have peculiar views on free will and responsibility. Most democratic countries vigorously protect Freedom of Speech. In the United States, Freedom of Speech is one of the most ardently defended rights. But even it has limits.
A person is not permitted to directly exhort criminal behavior. For example, it might be considered illegal for me to yell, “Rape her”, but it seems perfectly acceptable in the US to say something like, “A married woman must submit to the sexual advances of her husband.” You can even preach that from the pulpit, though marital rape is a crime in all 50 states.
Though both individuals here seem to counsel rape, the generalized version isn’t against the law. Should a male church member force sex upon his spouse following hearing such a sermon, who should be held responsible? The husband? The minister? The laws and lawmakers that permitted the act of exhortation in the first place?
According to wiki: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees free speech, and the degree to which incitement is protected speech is determined by the imminent lawless action test introduced by the 1969 Supreme Court decision in the case Brandenburg v. Ohio. The court ruled that incitement of events in the indefinite future was protected, but encouragement of “imminent” illegal acts was not protected.
Are we simply too dense, too stupid, to link one act (the preaching) to another (the within-marriage) rape? In many instances, I’d say, “Yes, we are.”
If we want to say, “people have a kind of limited free will to make certain choices in a non-deterministic world under a variety of influences” should we not make some effort to understand those influences and assign some level of responsibility to them?
How does empirical physicalism view free will?
The empirical physicalist is a social pragmatist. I am not primarily concerned with assigning responsibility. I am more concerned with finding ways to encourage virtuous, good, or correct behavior—actions that are in the long-term survival interest of the species—in the majority of its members.
So I would recognize both the unpredictability of the universe, the functioning of the human mind (according to the best science available), and the many societal influences on that mind. Then I would ask, “Does this combination lead to the kind of society that is in the best long-term interests of species survival?” If not, I would look to change something. The universe and the human mind are both difficult to change. The obvious, easiest place to begin is with the societal influences that we permit and encourage.
I would begin with societal systems. If you want the limited free will of humans to select some behavior over others, you want to make that behavior most attractive, most rewarding, and least difficult. By altering societal systems, the influences that play in human decision-making, you are best able to alter human behavior.
What do you think? Does this smack of “social engineering” to you? Would you object to being manipulated in a consistent, well-developed manner (especially if there was evidence that it was in your own interest)? Do you object to the thousands, perhaps millions, of big and little ways various special interests already manipulate you? Share your views and insights in the comments.
And thanks for following – Paul.