On Free Will

So Dave posted his thoughts yesterday on the subject of free will. What follows is everything that I can dump out of my head on the subject, because my brain refuses to shut up until I respond to Dave’s post.

First, let’s set down a definition:

D1: For any event, E, and person, P, E is none of P’s doing if and only if R has no cause that is (or includes) events that take place in P.

From this we can derive two Principles:

P1: An action, A, is not a free act of a person, P, if A is none of P’s doing.

P2: An action, A, is not the free act of a person, P, if A has a cause, C(A), that is none of P’s doing.

P1 and P2 seem to rule out free actions because:

1. No uncaused action is the free act of any person (P1)

2. No act of any person is a free act of that person if it is the result of a chain of causes extending back to a time before that person was born (P2)

3. No act cause by an uncaused event can be the free act of a person – whether or not the uncaused event occurs in the person. (P2)

Given these principles can we produce a coherent conception of how free will is possible?

Consider the mathematically convergent series (1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 …), which, when all of its components are summed, approaches but never reaches 2.

Now, consider this as a series of increments of time, starting from now and converging backwards to 2 second in the past.

Now, consider that you perform an action now. Say that action has a cause that occurred 1 second ago, and that cause has a cause that occurred 1/2 a second before it, and so on according to the convergent series given above.

What you will see is an infinite number of causes for you action, all occurring within, but never exactly starting from 2 seconds before the action was performed.

Consider that each and every one of these causes could be of your doing, and each could be traced back to a yet earlier cause that could occur within you. In this case, we would have free will according to the definition above.

Is this actually free will?

Well, if we consider the omnipotent outsider perspective, what it would appear like is an infinite series of causes springing up seemingly out of nowhere very close to two seconds before each action. This really does not appear to be anything like how we understand causes to work, and is really a baffling explanation for how something could occur. Should we try to trace back the obvious causes of any of our actions, we tend to see things on a macroscopic scale. So while this seems to be a satisfactory example of free will considering the definition above, it clears seems unnecessarily complex, and given Occam’s Razor, the best alternative seems to be to deny that free will is possible.

Yet at the end of the day we still act as if we have free will and choice.

This all is a summation of thoughts by two philosophers I respect greatly. The first is Thomas Nagel, who compiled the definition of free will above. The counter argument and conception of free will below that definition was created by William DeAngelis, and demonstrates a potential lacking in Nagel’s definition.

Nagel’s definition is taken from his book, The View from Nowhere, which is his attempt at giving a coherent metaphilosophcial viewpoint (a philosophical view of what philosophy is). To Nagel, philosophical problems derive from an irreconcilable conflict between the subject and objective viewpoint. His proposed general solution to philosophical conflicts is to reconcile these viewpoints in some way, and is best approached by addressing where the conflict actually occurs.

A good example of a reconciled difference in subjective and objective viewpoints comes by way of the views of Ptolemy and Copernicus regarding the earth’s position in the heavens. To Ptolemy, it was clear, looking up at the sky that everything in the universe rotated around the earth. To be sure, the pure subjective viewpoint seems to adhere to Ptolemy’s explanation, as it does look from our vantage point that this is what happens. However, Copernicus showed that in fact everything makes much more sense if the earth is not at the center of the heavens, but that Ptolemy’s viewpoint is not wrong, just narrow. Copernicus allows for the subjective Ptolemaic viewpoint, while at the same time offering a clearer, cleaner, and in the end more correct alternative. This is not a philosophical problem because the two viewpoints reconcile so well.

The other options for reconciliation are that the subjective viewpoint explains away the objective, or that there is just no inherent conflict among the viewpoints, with neither overriding the other. Examples for these escape me at the moment.

In the case of free will, however, we subjectively function as if we have free will, and try as we might to disprove that fact, we inevitably slip back in to that frame of reference. Indeed there seems to be no choice but to do that. On the other hand, when we look at the problem objectively, we see that there simply is no coherent definition available for free will that stand up to argument. All our attempts to define free will, fail, and it seems we have no choice but to abandon hope and declare free will dead. However, we also cannot account for why we perceive free will from the subjective viewpoint, and why there seems to be no actionable alternative to it.

So how can we attempt to clear this up? Well the first option is to show there is a definition for free will which is logically satisfactory. Philosophers have been doing this for millennia to no avail. We could use Nagel’s as a starting point, but even his definition seems to be lacking in rigor, given the thoughts of W. DeAngelis.

So, what if we could find a way to finally reconcile with our subjective viewpoint that it only appears we have free will because of X, Y, and Z, and that really we don’t, and that it’s really not a problem.

I think this is what Dave is attempting to do in a way. The objective definitions we have of free will obviously seem to fail, and subjectively we seem to have a pretty clear idea of what free will is. Dave’s argument boils down to a claim that we’re objectively defining free will in the wrong way.

Dave’s argument, I think, from the conversation we had at dinner the other week, is that Free Will is ultimately the ability for our thoughts to align in such a way that our desires and our actions seem to correspond meaningfully.

Now in his post, Dave actually says, “And because this is THE way to describe that phenomenon, can we say free will is anything other than the ability of our thoughts to cause actions?”

Now I’m not arguing that this isn’t the way I see free will. I’ve always seen free will as the ability for my thoughts to cause actions. However, if this is what Dave really meant, and not something like the alternative wording I presented above, then I have to say that this viewpoint amounts to nothing, because it can be logically demonstrated that there is no coherent way that any action can be caused by a person in a significant way that allows for a rigorous definition of free will. I think the logical argument at the beginning of the post clearly demonstrates that.

However, I think this was just a muddled choice of wording, so I will address the concept that “our thoughts to align in such a way that our desires and our actions seem to correspond meaningfully.”

This, to me, is limited freedom. This is not a completely lack of free will, in that I certainly don’t feel I have lost control and am not free, but this I think falls under the banner definition of “political freedom” or “limited freedom”. I brought this up to Dave and he seemed to agree at the time.

However, I cannot shake the fact that Dave’s definition of freedom to me feels like subtle coercion. I may not feel completely bound, but I do not feel completely free to choose either. I may still be able to get my way, but that is in a sense bounded by what the world around me is telling me I should do. Whether or not this is a bad thing is up for argument. I think a “free-spirited” person would argue that it is a bad thing. However, Dave is right, to deny this is akin to denying the laws of physics. It leaves you in much the same place (namely, afraid to take another step lest you fly off the world or sink in to the ground or something equally absurd). I think it is safe to say that at the very least we have this form of limited freedom.

However, the pure subjective viewpoint seems to clearly define free will as something more than this.

So the question is, does this objective definition of free will allow for reconciliation between the subjective and objective viewpoints, in the way the Copernican view allowed for Ptolemy. I’d have to say both yes and no. On the one hand, it does show itself to be an improvement on our previously discussed objective definition of free will, in that it affords us some sense of freedom. However, I again return to the fact that my pure subjective viewpoint seems to clearly define free will as something grander.

The brilliance of the Copernican revolution and all the ideas that followed it was that it made things easier to understand. If I want to plot the path of a planet across the sky, my life is made easier by looking at things from a post-Copernican frame of reference. I am allowed to see thing as I do (the planet moving across the sky as if it was revolving around the planet earth) while understanding things from a frame of reference which makes my goal easier.

With free will, I understand that I have a choice here and now to do as I will. I will pretend that I want to make a prediction as to what I will choose in this case. Should I be looking for insight there, I will agree that Dave’s view does much the same job. It makes predicting future choices much easier and more reliable that simply saying “it could go either way”, and this is an appealing merit of the view. It also does a reasonably good job at showing why the subjective viewpoint is still valid. However, I don’t think it completely reconciles the subjective viewpoint as the Copernican viewpoint does with Ptolemy. It doesn’t clearly show us the disconnect in a way where we can be ok with the existence of one. The objective definition here strives merely to be a “good enough” definition of free will, and thus, is not actually good enough to resolve the problem.

Copernicus gave us a better understanding than we had before. The natural inclination with free will though, is to make the objective perspective bow before the subjective perspective in some way, and until we either come up with an objective perspective that is better than our subjective perspective, or can define our subjective perspective in a way that allows for the objective perspective but overrides it, I don’t think this problem will disappear.

That’s what I have in me for now. I’ll try to add or clarify my thoughts in the comments as the occur to me.


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