On free will


On free will

Julian Baggini on constraint and choice.

Julian Baggini

Topics Books Long-reads

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Julian Baggini, philosopher, writer and one-time editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, has come to rescue free will… by burying it, or at least its widespread misconception. Too often, he argues in Freedom Regained, we simply haven’t grasped what it is to be free. Thinkers have tended to separate free will off from the rest of the self, as a controller, a faculty of the will, a part of the soul. More generally free will tends to figure as the conviction that one can always do otherwise, that at every moment, one’s action is absolutely free. And, too often, those sceptical of the idea of free will find such ideas all too easy to dismiss as non-existent, neurological illusions, myths of agency amidst the iron laws of the universe. ‘The commonsense notion of free will is not fit for purpose’, concludes Baggini. ‘It rests on a naive and simplistic assumption that we can rise above our biology and our history to make choices in a condition of unconstrained freedom. The challenges to free will need to be met not by rejecting them wholesale, but by thinking more carefully about what it truly means to be free, rather than what we simply assume it to mean.’

So how does Baggini reconcile free will with biology and history, nature and nurture? Is determinism compatible with free will? And what does Baggini think it means to be free?

spiked review: Normally, neuroscience and, to a lesser extent, genetics are used to expose free will as an illusion. Why do you use the science to build the case for free will?

Julian Baggini: I don’t think you can have any view about human nature and human values and so on which isn’t at the very least consistent with our best science. The problem comes when people assume that the science delivers answers to what are essentially non-scientific questions. I don’t, for example, think the question of ethics is a scientific question – you don’t find right or wrong under a microscope.

The fundamental question of human free will is an old question. In short, if we are indeed made up of nothing more than atoms, like anything else in the universe, then we must obey natural laws, and natural laws are little more than cause and effect. So where does that leave free will? Knowing in much more detail how those chains of cause and effect work, for example in the brain, doesn’t actually add anything fundamental to this core problem of free will.

spiked review: So, in sum, you’re arguing that free will is compatible with determinism…

Baggini: Yes, I think that’s true. It’s not an original point. David Hume made the same point, perhaps even more stridently. Our whole idea of human action, he argued, depends upon some belief that there is some regularity of cause and effect. You know someone and you trust someone because you believe that their character is going to lead them to act in certain ways. Predictability, in this sense, is not a bad thing – we rely on it to a great extent. Now that point is obvious, but only to the extent that there is a certain degree of predictability in terms of what we expect from people. We wouldn’t want others to behave randomly.

But what worries people is not just that they’re reasonably predictable; what worries people is the idea that we’re completely predictable. I may know that you tend to start your day with a cup of coffee, and no one thinks that that knowledge is a fundamental threat to free will. But what would feel like a threat is if, in some way, you were bound always to choose that cup of coffee.

Now the problem is that when you talk about these things, it’s very difficult to do so in ways that don’t already prejudge the issue. So, for example, I could say ‘the problem with free will is that when you choose coffee, you couldn’t have chosen otherwise’, or ‘you were going to choose that coffee, no matter what else happened’. Yet we don’t need to believe in fatalism – indeed, science doesn’t suggest any kind of fatalism, that the universe is somehow conspiring to ensure that no matter what people do, certain results will are predetermined. Rather, what happens, as a consequence of our actions, happens because we act. Now there may be, at some deep level, a certain inevitability about what you’re going to do, but what seems to trouble people most about that is they take this to imply that their thoughts, their beliefs, their desires, have nothing to do with the outcome – that what we’re going to do, which happens at some neurological level, bypasses any form of agency or thought. It suggests that whatever we might think is just froth on the surface.

There are various reasons for believing that this is wrong. First, a lot of our actions are reasonably automatic, but most of the time we do engage in conscious deliberation, in consciously noticing things. Conscious awareness plays a clear role in our actions. If I hear you say ‘duck’, I’m likely to duck. If I hear you say ‘luck’, I’m likely to go ‘what!?!’. The difference there is that I’ve understood there’s something semantic there; it’s not just a neurological event. Something meaningful is going on.

But the deeper problem is that when people talk about the neurological bypassing of agency, they end up with a contradiction. They start by arguing that our mental processes are generated in the brain. So there’s a sense in which we are no more than our brains. They can then say ‘my brain did it’, that the decision to act came from my brain before I knew about it. Yet that second statement involves a distinction between myself and my brain. So, if you’re going to be rigorously materialist, if you’re going to accept that the physical stuff is the only stuff, it doesn’t make any sense to talk of things that the brain does as opposed to the things that we do. In some way, it has to be the case that we do them. And the fact that physical processes underlie our conscious choices, our deliberations, our reasoning and so on, makes no difference. All it shows is that those processes – the reasoning, the deliberation and so on – are based on physiological processes in the brain. That shouldn’t be news to anyone.

review: In Freedom Regained, you quote the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin: ‘What we are seeing is a transformation of worldview in which the objective of understanding nature by breaking it down into ever smaller parts is supplanted by the objective of understanding how nature organises itself.’ Could you say a bit more about how what’s known as ‘complexity theory’ refutes those who would reduce consciousness to its most basic physical constituents?

Baggini: I don’t want to make too much of complexity theory and the science, because I don’t claim to understand it completely. But in broad terms, it’s well understood in lots of fields that reducing all phenomena to their lowest, most basic level is limited in application. Look at biology. You’re not going to understand photosynthesis at all if you look at it from the subatomic level. You understand it by looking at the level of the plant. To understand how plants grow, you need to look at the whole eco-system.

So complexity theory, and the principle that things change their behaviour and even what properties emerge depending on their relationship with other systems, is a perfectly rational and scientific principle. Besides, if you look at exhibit A in the domain of consciousness – the brain – that’s not reductionism to the subatomic level anyway. The firing of neurons is not the most simple, physical explanation of mental activity – you’re already looking at the system at an order of complexity, and an order of arrangement, which is above the subatomic level.

It seems to me that human beings are complex organisations, which give rise to properties and qualities which it would be foolish to think we could necessarily find at the subatomic level. Nothing we know of the physical structure of the universe – the most fundamental particles beyond the complexity of human thought – invalidates a description of the world which appeals to things at a higher level of organisation, such as thoughts, decisions, reasons and so forth.

review: As sophisticated as your argument is, there is still that sense that you’re saying individuals can do no other. That in that situation, that person, with that character and that background, cannot do anything but that which he is determined to. Many will say, ‘that does not sound like free will to me’ – how do you counter that response?

Baggini: It is a difficult, tricky issue, and I understand why people find the position I advocate – often called compatibilism, which is the position most philosophers today support — to be slippery. It is slippery because it really does depend on defining the forms of freedom we do have, and those we don’t.

This is the tough one, the thing that has to be grasped. ‘Could I have done otherwise?’ Now, there is a sense that, at any given moment, we could not have done otherwise. You don’t need deep science for this. Let’s accept that we, as individuals, are nothing more than products of nature and nurture. What else could make you who you are other than the things you are physically made up of, the things you are born with and your experience in life? So, in that sense, at any given moment in time, at the point we make a decision, that decision is going to be based on a combination of nature and nurture up until that point, and, in that sense, it’s going to make the decision inevitable. If we had a capacity to override that, it would be nothing more than a capacity to throw in a kind of randomness spanner into the works. But that wouldn’t be a kind of free will that was worth having.

Now is that deeply disturbing? Is that problematic? I can see why some might think it is. And that’s partly because we’re just not used to thinking in this way. We tend to think that at any given moment, we could do ‘X’ or ‘Y’ in a very real way. But if you concede that what would make it not true – to act randomly – would be a capacity that’s not worth having, then there’s something wrong here. So at the very least if we don’t have free will, it wasn’t worth having in the first place, if that’s what free will means.

But then we can row back a bit, and ask if there’s a way of understanding what matters about free will in a way that is consistent with free will? Now, accepting that what I do at any given moment is inevitable at that point, the future direction we take is still going to be affected by how we think about things, the decisions we take, and the choices we make. Sure, there’s always a sense in which there’s a ‘bound to be’ aspect, but as long as it still makes a difference to what we think, how we think, how we choose, then does that particular type of inevitability matter?

I think people think it matters because they think it means that things are going to happen no matter what. But they’re not going to happen no matter what, because everything we do is still vital to what happens. In other words, if I sit a test, I’m not going to get the same mark irrespective of what answers I give. It’s going to depend on what answers I give. So what I do does make a difference. I shouldn’t despair. Now, is there a sense in which when I sit down in front of a question it is inevitable what answer I give? Yes, it is in a way. But that doesn’t undermine our life projects. It still means it’s worth revising for a test. It still means it’s worth thinking about whether the test is preparing you for something you really want to do. And so forth.

I can see why people aren’t comfortable with it, but, ultimately, any other kind of free will couldn’t exist. What you’ve really got to ask is if the kind of inevitability that surrounds our choices fatally undermines the important things that makes our capacity for choice valuable – our ability to guide our own lives, to make decisions for ourselves and so on. And it seems that all those things we still do in an important and meaningful sense.

review: Surely the very notion, no matter how nuanced, that there is an inevitability about our actions still poses problems in those areas in which a more commonsense idea of free will is presupposed. I’m thinking, for example, of the idea of criminal responsibility.

Baggini: Criminal responsibility is actually a good example of why the absence of the kind of free will some think we must have is not a problem at all. So, if it’s the case that, at the moment a criminal commits a crime, there is a sense in which they could not have done otherwise, does that not make punishment completely unjustified and unfair? Well, ask yourself the question, ‘Could we live in a world in which no one can be held responsible for what they do?’. What you notice is that in that world, things would change, behaviours would change. If we did live in that world there would almost certainly be a lot more crime. So there clearly is a sense in which people aren’t just going to do what they’re going to do anyway. Criminals’ behaviour does depend on how we treat them and how they react to their treatment.

The key here is that the really punitive response that doesn’t recognise the fact that criminality has deep causes that the person didn’t ultimately choose themselves, from their genes to their background etc – all of that is true. What we want to do is, a) prevent bad things from happening, and b) cultivate in people the capacity to regulate their own behaviour, so they don’t do such things again. Now both those things are possible (although our criminal-justice system is appalling and our rehabilitation processes even worse). But generally speaking, as with children, you realise criminals are not responsible for everything wrong they do, but that doesn’t mean you excuse them – you tell them that’s wrong, you punish them. And why? Because in a small way, they are already able to respond to reasons, to incentives, to reflect on their own behaviour. We are trying to get them to learn how to regulate their own behaviour and how to take responsibility.

Criminal justice and punishment are not so much about making people responsible for what they’ve already done; they’re about cultivating in people a willingness to take responsibility for what they will do in the future.

review: You’re saying that self-control, self-regulation – indeed self-government – is an accomplishment. It’s something to be achieved…

Baggini: Yes, that’s true. Free will is not a capacity we’re endowed with at birth by God. I think one of the most important implications of the argument I’m making is that it makes what we call free will a matter of degree. Clearly, no one has an absolute free will. Not even God could choose his own nature – to not be God, to be bad. God is what he is. We are what we are, in that sense.

At the same time, none of us is simply doomed to follow a pattern of clockwork behaviour. We have a degree of free will when we can control enough of our behaviour to be held to account and treated as autonomous. There are lots of things that impair that. So when someone becomes an addict, that’s a kind of impairment of their free will. It doesn’t destroy it, because if it did, rehabilitation would be impossible. It’s just the addiction is such that it makes it much more difficult to exercise that capacity of self-control.

Free will has to be cultivated. It never becomes pure, absolute. It’s very important to recognise that. To be a moral, autonomous agent depends on the cultivation of the capacity for self-government and a huge amount of good fortune.

review: To what extent does the absence of coercion, to be free to act according to our character, our preferences and our desires, equate to having free will?

Baggini: The absence of coercion is of course important. Some say free will is nothing more than the absence of coercion. As long as no one’s forcing you to do something, then you’re free. The inevitability of your actions etc, is beside the point.

But that’s not quite right. In the absence of coercion, we could just be simply responding to impulses, to desires, parts of ourselves that we might not even be conscious of. Who’s got the greater free will: someone who sees the chocolate biscuit and eats it because he likes chocolate; or someone who sees the chocolate biscuit, who likes chocolate, but decides not to eat it because it’s not good for them? In both cases, coercion is absent. But in the first case, there is no impulse control – he doesn’t seem to have freedom of the right kind. It’s the freedom to be a slave to their desires and impulses.

What we tend to value as freedom is the ability to exercise executive control over our own behaviour, not from second to second because much of what we do from second to second is automatic. What’s important is the executive control which allows us to choose a direction for our lives, to choose to do things which we think, on reflection, are of value. And that requires much more than the absence of coercion.

I think that too often the folk conception of political freedom is based around the absence of coercion. ‘Stop telling people what to do, then we have freedom.’ I think that true freedom requires a bit more than that. A society that lacks the cultural and moral resources to take control of their lives remains without freedom.

review: One of the interesting parts of Freedom Regained centres on the figure of the artist – why do you think the artist offers a model of the kind of freedom you’re talking about?

Baggini: I really felt that the problem with a lot of these debates about free will is that you end up talking about some of the most trivial examples of freedom. Obviously a lot of the psychology experiments have to be about things which are pretty straightforward – press this button at a moment of your choosing, and so on. But it doesn’t matter to me whether I press this button then or then or then. The freedom to press a button has little to with the freedom that matters. I’m as guilty of trivialising free will as anyone – even here, I’m talking about choosing tea or coffee, or whether or not to eat biscuits. Trivial stuff. So, if we’re going to talk about freedom and why it matters, let’s think about what we take to be paradigms of freedom. And I chose two: one being the political dissident; the other being the artist.

Now, we tend to think that human freedom is most purely expressed in the arts, because the artist is allowed to be his true self unhindered, unhampered. He can be original, creative and so on. That’s freedom. Yet, explore the nature of the artist, and what you actually find is that those things we think are important for free will are not there at all. Take conscious control. Artists, especially fiction writers, often say they have no idea where their ideas came from – they seem to come from nowhere. The same goes for songwriters. It sounds religious, but they’ll say ‘the muse just comes from somewhere’. So the sources of our creativity are not known to ourselves. And there’s certainly no sense that ‘I could have done otherwise’.

I don’t want to romanticise the creative process – the creative process isn’t just a spontaneous outpouring. But there is no sense for an artist in which they could have done otherwise. Artists feel a certain compulsion to create what they create. That dab of paint has to be there because that’s where it belongs. They feel that as a necessity, not just as a capricious choice. Novelists will feel that this has to happen to this character. In all these cases what you see is the absence of those things that are typically said to be essential for free will to exist. But what you do have is the fact that the artist is free to create on his own terms, for himself unhindered. It shows that what really matters about free will is nothing to do with digging into the history of our actions and discovering an inevitability; it’s rather that we are able to be, as Grayson Perry put it, a train running on its own rails. In one way, this sounds restrictive – a train runs on rails, so it can’t just turn left or right. But it’s your train and they’re your rails, and you’re doing what is necessary for you, unencumbered and free.

review: In some ways, an artist is wrestling with necessity. They’re not freely creating from nothing, ex nihilo. They’re always freely creating from something, wrestling with past determinants: their tradition, their medium. A fiction writer wrestles with the constraints of language, of dramatic convention, of narrative and so on. They’re making something, but not they’re not making it as they please.

Baggini: That’s true. Creative people often talk of the constraints of the creative process. A lot of people actively seek certain constraints in order to push their creativity. An author might set himself a particular challenge, for example, a story that takes place entirely in 12 hours. There are also the ultimate constraints, say, of a medium. An oil painter can only use certain materials, for instance. This is important. In the absence of all constraint, there would be no meaningful choice at all.

Let’s go back to the trivial example: it’s only because you have certain preferences that you can choose between tea and coffee. If you could just drink anything with equal pleasure or delight, then your choice would be utterly meaningless. It’s because there are these constraints that these choices are meaningful.

Often the choices that are most valuable to us are those where we actually feel a compulsion to make a particular decision. The most valuable choices are not the ones where we could equally choose anything. By definition, if you could go either way, it means you don’t care about the choice. The choices that matter, that are meaningful – am I going to stay here and fight for my country or flee; am I going to commit myself to this other person for life – the reason those choices are so meaningful is that there is always something there, be it love or a commitment to an ideal, which you feel as a strong force acting upon you, which you didn’t choose.

In politics, for example, no one who cares about their causes thinks they could just as easily choose the opposite view or cause. They are committed to the values they hold because they feel the force of those values upon them. The free choice is often the uncoerced choice to submit to what, on reflection, you feel has great value. You don’t choose that it has value — you see that it has value. And it’s not your free choice that it does have value.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and the author of many books, including, most recently, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will, published by Granta. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Picture by: Jeffrey Pioquinto, published under a creative commons license.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books Long-reads


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today