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?
There is a sense that, at any given moment, we could not have done otherwise
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.
Artists feel a 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
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.
A society that lacks the cultural and moral resources to take control of their lives remains without freedom
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.
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