We’d Do Better If We Thought of “Free Will” as a Concept More Like “Physical Fitness”

There are a number of things that could go wrong in our attempts to answer questions around free will:

First, we could expect the answer to be absolute: either we have free will, or everything is determined, in which case we don’t. Either everything is determined by the way the tiniest particles have been flying around the universe since the big bang, or we’re all little gods, unmoved movers creating uncaused causes. This way of thinking might lead us not to pay enough attention to the limitations that are placed on our free will, or on the room for manoeuvre we have within a deterministic world. If we pay attention though, we will find interesting answers right by those boundaries and in exploring that room for manoeuvre.

Second, we may be looking for answers to out questions about free will to flow from general facts about the universe and human nature. I call this a top-down approach.

A different approach may be to start from something we should know very well, our own experience, and derive the general principles from that. That would be the bottom-up approach.

The problem with a top-down approach is that quite often an answer to questions about free will is already built-in to the original assumptions about the universe and human nature. So, for example, if I assume that the universe is purely physical and that human beings are controlled by the movements of physical particles in the physical brain, it is relatively straightforward to claim that everything in our lives must be entirely determined. Of course then there can be no free will. But arguably our original worldview never contained a space for free will.

You might ask what’s wrong with that? Isn’t it true to say that if the universe is purely physical as described, then there is no free will? And I would reply, yes that is likely to be so. But you haven’t deduced the absence of free will from facts about the universe in a meaningful way, you have simply described a universe in which free will couldn’t exist. For a long time many people strongly held a worldview where free will was part of their assumptions about the universe. Their worldview contained a God who had given human beings the ability to make choices and who would judge their soul in accordance with the choices they made. Again, free will was already part of an overall worldview. 

An antidote to buying assumptions about free will and determinism as part and parcel of a worldview, is focussing really on our own experience. You might say, but what if our experience is based on an illusion? Isn’t it because we can’t trust our experience that we should look to more reliable methods, such as science, to give us answers? And if science tells us that things aren’t quite as we experience them, we should adjust our behaviours.

My reply would be that, yes, it will be helpful to bring our experience into line with what science tells us. But, even if there is illusion in our experience, let’s start from a really good understanding of that. Let’s look at it, describe it and let’s get at the mechanisms by which the illusion comes about. Why would we content ourselves with concluding that an illusion is present? We want to know who the illusionist is and how the trick works. Looking at our experience of optical illusions, after all, gives us good insights about how our eyes and brains work. Understanding how magicians work, gives us insights into what can make us believe things, how our attention works and how we can be distracted or misled. If free will is an illusion, which some people believe, let’s not stop at admitting the possibility. Let’s then look for a full account of who the illusionist is and how they work.

I remember once reading philosophical literature about a related subject, weakness of will. This is when someone does something, even though they know that the rational thing would be not do that, but to do something else. It has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years. A typical example is eating the second slice of chocolate cake, even though I know I shouldn’t. In a footnote, a philosopher said something like “let’s leave aside the exceptional cases where the person displaying the weak-willed behaviour is simply to tired, drunk, neurotic or subject to phobias to do what he knows he should be doing.” I thought that was odd. It treated key aspects of human nature as exceptions, as marginal cases that need to be dismissed in order to get at a pure instance of weakness of will. But what if weakness of will largely is about the cases where we are too tired, or subject to all those other limitations that come from us being human beings with bodies, rather than just minds? What if the reason philosophers have been so puzzled about weakness of will is because they tried to distil some kind of pure version of weakness of will, purely brought about by rational machinations of the mind, that doesn’t exist. 

Third, we could be assuming that free will is either generally something we have as a given, or something we don’t have, rather than paying attention to the way we can develop, cultivate and extend, or neglect, undermine and lose elements of free will over a life-time.

It is, as if we asked whether human beings have physical fitness, and assumed there to be a general yes-or-no answer, flowing from facts about the universe, rather than paying attention to what human beings can and need to do over a life to acquire and maintain physical fitness. I’m saying that when it comes to free will, we may have a lot to learn from looking at physical fitness: The way in which it is possible to have more or less of it, within the constraints of what it means to have a human body in the world as we know it, the way in which we can cultivate, or neglect it, leading to increased or decreased levels of it, and the way it has specifically human aspects while being based on harder scientific facts about us and the world. 

In other words, I think we should look at free will not only as a physical or metaphysical concept but as a mental and psychological capacity that interacts with the physical universe and facts about human beings

In any case, I believe if we want to say anything at all meaningful about free will, we need to explore it as a relative, not an absolute concept, we need to build up our answer about what it means to be free based on human experience and we have to be prepared to see it as something we can cultivate or neglect, extend or lose.

I would argue that once we have done that, we have something incredibly precious, a free will that is worth having and an answer to some of the biggest questions about human existence. But to show that is the work of future posts.

Determinism 14 – Prometheus, Determinism and the Unfree Will

Over the last 13 posts on determinism and free will (starting here), I’ve changed my mind a few times about a number of things concerning the determined nature of our existence and the free will we can exercise. Recently, a Greek myth popped into my mind as having relevance and the idea of deducing a few things by examining physical freedom as a close parallel to freedom of the will.

Looking to a Greek myth for inspiration should be uncontroversial: The Greek myths, and Greek tragedy in which they are often presented, have a good grasp on what it means to be a human being in this universe. They present pointed case studies for various aspects of the human condition. While they form part of the ancestry of our culture, they stem from a time before other important aspects of our culture emerged. And so, for example, they are untouched by things like Judaeo-Christian monotheism and the ethical framework that comes with it, the consumer society, not to mention the internet of things. And so they contain raw material without the overlay of some of the things that shape our daily experience.

Treating physical freedom as informative for freedom of the will shouldn’t be equally uncontroversial. Just because the word “freedom” is involved in both contexts doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take for granted common meanings and characteristics of the concepts. The parallel is something that needs to be investigated and argued for, rather than taken for granted.

The story of Prometheus takes place after Zeus and his family of Olympian gods overthrew the previous generation of gods, led by Zeus’ father Kronos. Prometheus was a titan who helped Zeus in this palace coup. But when Zeus wanted to wipe out mankind and populate earth with a new generation of better creatures, Prometheus helped human beings by giving them fire – a symbol for technology -, arts and sciences, as well as all sorts of practical skills.  He also, according to the tragedian Aeschylus, “caused men no longer to foresee their death” and cured their misery by planting “firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness.” (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about that cure for misery, but let’s not get sidetracked.) For this service to humanity, Zeus punished Prometheus. He was punished by being tied to a cliff at the end of the world, underneath him the Ocean, which in Greek geographical thought surrounded the earth. Aeschylus describes in detail how the divine blacksmith Hephaestus is forced to tie Prometheus’ arms to the cliff, as well as his legs, and for good measure to put a bolt through his chest into the rock. To ensure that Prometheus could never quite enjoy any kind of peace of mind, Zeus’ eagle visits him daily to chew his liver. This, we are assured by reliable sources, is a painful process.

So Prometheus stands (or hangs) pretty much for the least free person in the world. 13 generations later, the hero Hercules, frees him. Let’s assume that this was a piecemeal process. Perhaps, first of all, Hercules shooed away the eagle and told him in no uncertain terms never to come back to pester Prometheus. Prometheus already feels a bit freer. Without the daily pain and the constant threat of pain, he can focus at least for a while each day on planning for greater freedom. Let’s say Hercules then takes out the bolt from Prometheus’ chest. This is another increase in freedom. It may not sound like much if you’re not hanging from a cliff above the ocean, but for Prometheus at the time, we must imagine, it was nice just to be able to stretch his upper body a bit. Then let’s assume Hercules creates a little ledge in the cliff and unties Prometheus’ arms and legs. While Prometheus is now a man with the freedom to lie, sit, stand and walk at most a few steps in either direction on a ledge in a cliff, he still feels immeasurably freer than he felt before. But then let’s imagine Hercules lifts him up out of the cliff and puts him on firm ground, maybe gives him some clothes and a little villa – because Hercules is nice like that and wants Prometheus to be able to enjoy life after a few hundred years on that cliff. Obviously, with each step Prometheus’ freedom is increased.

Now, Prometheus has a brother, Epimetheus. While Prometheus is generally regarded as the clever one (his name means “forethought”), Epimetheus is more often seen as the dumb one of the family (his name means “afterthought”). While Prometheus was imprisoned on the rock, Epimetheus was roaming free. At one unfortunate point he caused Pandora’s box to be opened, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s imagine that the two brothers meet up shortly after Prometheus was set free. Epimetheus complains about their lack of freedom: “We’re tied to this Earth and can’t even fly up into the air like birds, let alone jump over the moon or travel to the planets. We’re limited to having this human body and can’t grow wings, or reach the size of an elephant. We can’t just decide to run on all fours at the speed of a cheetah. We really are wretchedly unfree creatures, determined to live with the limitations of our bodies and the physical constraints of this Earth.” To which we must imagine Prometheus calmly responded: “Listen, why don’t you just enjoy the freedom you do have, to move around freely, go about your business, change your environment, create things of beauty, help your fellow creatures, rather than whinge about things that are impossible. At least you’re not tied to a rock.”

What does this have to do with freedom of the will and determinism? I will take out a number of points to expand upon in future blog posts:

  1. Prometheus and Epimetheus have a different understanding of the same condition. Prometheus feels free following a long time tied to the rock, Epimetheus feels unfree because he is physically restricted by his nature and that of the world, including the laws of physics. For Prometheus, the opposite of being free is being tied to the rock. For Epimetheus, it is being restricted in what he can do. I think it is possible that there is an opposite to free will that is unfree will, as well as an opposite that is determinism.
  2. Prometheus’ fate suggests that you can be more or less free. Epimetheus’ perception suggests that you can be completely free, but that doesn’t mean are not subject to certain constraints which make up the human condition. In the same way, I think it is possible for free will to be a matter of degree, rather than a binary “either you have it or you don’t” issue. However, arguing that we have free will, does not commit one to the view that there are no constraints. (Sometimes, the fact that one cannot just will any old thing, is taken as an argument that we don’t have free will.)
  3. The things that make Prometheus unfree are the shackles on his arms and legs, the bolt through his chest, the eagle tormenting him and the lack of space in which to move. The things that make the will unfree are things like addictions, phobias, bad habits, reactivity in action, acting on unconscious motives, psychological compulsions and so on. The things that make Epimetheus unfree are his nature as a certain kind of creature, a titan, but we can pretend he’s a human being, and the nature of the universe. The things that make the will determined could similarly be about the nature of life as a conscious, rational being and the universe we’re in. It is possible though that the factors that cause unfreedom of the will can be present to different degrees in different people, or can be added or removed over time, whereas the factors that cause determinism universal constraints.
  4. This “unfreedom” is not the same as determinism though. The things that make the will unfree can be removed, even in a deterministic universe. With Prometheus and Epimetheus, where the lack of freedom of being tied to a rock shares some broad features with the lack of freedom that is a general feature of the human condition – a lack of being able to do just anything, a restriction of room for manoeuvre – the “unfreedom” stemming from the shackles is much more restrictive than the lack of absolute freedom that Epimetheus bemoans. In the same way, the “unfree” will may be much less free than is required by general determinism. How restrictive determinism really is may only become clear when the factors that make the will unfree are removed as far as possible.