Contra-Causal Free Will

In my last post, Free Will and the Water Park, I argued that we cannot have the sort of free will that people informally think we have. I emphasized the aspects of rationality and conscious intent and I think I caused some confusion. Let me try again from another angle: causality.

Most people feel that if choices A and B are available, and nobody is forcing them to take one or the other, they can use their free will to pick one in a way that is reasoned and yet somehow floats above causality. This is what I called contra-causal free will in one of my comments to the last post, and this is the sort of free will I contend cannot exist:

The power to make a choice that is both reasoned and free from external causes.

In my last post, I talked about rationality, but we don’t even need to go there. Now I’m using the word reasoned, meaning that if you were to ask the person whether he had a reason for his choice, he would say yes. It does not even have to be a good reason. For the purposes of this discussion it could even be a purely emotional reason. (“I hit him because I was so angry that I couldn’t help myself.”)

As for the second part of the definition, free from external causes, I mean that the choice has somehow broken the sequence of cause and effect. Not only is nobody forcing your choice, but nothing is forcing it.

This type of free will, which most people vaguely think they have, is logically impossible because it is self-contradictory. To exactly the extent that I have reasons for my choice, I am following cause-and-effect. Yet, I’m also claiming that my choice is magically free from cause-and-effect. I can’t have it both ways.

How does having a reason tie me to cause-and-effect? A reason is simply a cause that I have chosen to bring to bear on my decision. Why did I choose to do so? Well, I had my reasons. There were reasons for those reasons for my reasons, and so on. At some point, the chain of reasons will go back to where I had no choice — if only because I had not been born yet. So my reasons, which were supposed to be my tickets to freedom, turn out to chain me firmly to non-freedom (in the sense we’re considering).

In the case of the purely emotional choice, the “I” who chose to bring a reason to bear may be my subconscious. When I hit someone because I was so angry that I “could not help myself,” it was not my cerebral cortex that was running the show, but my lizard brain. That primitive, emotional part of me had its reasons, and the rest of the previous paragraph applies.

But let’s suppose that somewhere along that chain I had a reason that was not the result of anything. It had no determining cause at all. If something is uncaused then it is random. (Think about it.) If I make a choice randomly, I suppose I’m free in one sense, but not in the sense that people mean when they say they have free will.

To summarize, a choice cannot both be reasoned and free from cause and effect, for having a reason means there was a cause.

All of the above applies whether we are talking about our conscious selves or our unconscious selves. It does not matter whether we’re talking about quick, instinctual acts or decisions pondered over months. The logic even holds whether we believe our decisions are made by molecules in our brains or by immaterial souls. You can’t have decisions that are both for-cause and free from the chain of cause and effect.

Compatiblists such as Daniel Dennett rescue the idea of free will by redefining it. “Let’s throw away the useless, self-contradictory definitions of free will,” they say, “and define it as the ability to make a choice unhindered by outsiders.”

In that sense, we clearly do have free will, for we do make choices that people don’t force us to make. And to Kiril’s point, yes, our choices do have efficacy.

On the other hand, the chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, had free will in that sense as well. In fact, it wielded it even better than the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov.

So does compatibilist free will count? You are free to decide.

11 responses to “Contra-Causal Free Will

  1. Larry,

    In the end, everything the brain does is computation. Free Will is entailed because our consciousness is in the midst of this calculation, making choices, applying what it has learned and sometimes creatively inventing new behavior patterns.


  2. “As for the second part of the definition, free from external causes, I mean that the choice has somehow broken the sequence of cause and effect.”

    Don’t you mean that you think someone else means this? In particular, some philosophical libertarians in some ivory tower in some distant past? You don’t actually believe in this definition yourself. How could you? It’s silly.

    “Not only is nobody [else] forcing your choice, but nothing is forcing it.”

    I am not “nothing”. I am part of what is forcing my choice because I make it. I am part of the cause, the other part of the cause is the input of my senses.

    The presentation of the choice by the environment is part of the cause. I cannot choose between vanilla and chocolate ice cream if some prior external cause did not present them to me as choices. So the very existence of a choice depends on causality.

    The other part of the cause is me, as a unit, at the time of the choice. Prior causes have no direct effect on my choice at that time, it is all me. Perhaps as a child I was put in a Skinner box and zapped with electricity every time I choose chocolate, but that cause is no longer in effect. I’m not being zapped now, yet I dislike chocolate, or perhaps ice cream altogether because of my bad childhood memories. It is still me who is making that choice not to have chocolate, or not to have ice cream at all.
    If I am psychologically damaged then that is who I am (at this time although in the future I may get over it).

    Most people understand that they were caused. For example they will agree that if their parents never met, or decided not to have sex, then they would not even exist to make a choice.

    When people say, “A rock fell and put the dent in my car” the fact that they don’t go further back in time to when the rock was formed from molten lava does not mean they think it is free from cause and effect. They just think it is sufficient for someone to understand that a rock was falling and hit the car. Likewise when there is ice cream and a person choosing that ice cream that is sufficient information to determine why they started eating the vanilla, because they chose it.

    To do otherwise makes no sense as humans because we cannot rewind time to see prior causes in these cases, and even if we could rewind time we would be very hard pressed to predict what the outcome of the choice would be. Heck, individuals themselves often can’t tell you precisely why they picked vanilla over chocolate on a particular day. We do know however that if they are sitting alone and picked the chocolate that President Lincoln didn’t do the picking (even if he invented ice cream).

    Contra-causal free will represents the beliefs of a very narrow strain of libertarian philosophers who have intellectually painted themselves into a corner. It is unfair to brand everyone with their mistakes, and especially compatibalists who are clearly using a more sensible definition of free will.

    The common man, by grouping the idea of self in time and space (to include the entire body down to the molecules) avoids the fallacies of the philosophical libertarian. It is indeed the person who makes a choice when making it, and not something else.

    • >> Don’t you mean that you think someone else means this [free from external causes]? In particular, some philosophical libertarians in some ivory tower in some distant past? You don’t actually believe in this definition yourself. How could you? It’s silly.

      You’re correct: this is not my position. However, its adherents are not confined to ivory towers, nor to the distant past. As I have spoken with ordinary people about free will, many of them, particularly the religious, believe that they have a sort of free will that “floats above causality,” as I put it in my post. They believe that having a soul somehow allows them to bypass the laws of cause and effect. And so they must: otherwise, how could God hold people so responsible for their actions that he is justified in sending them to heaven or (more likely) hell for all eternity?

      We all feel that we have libertarian free will. I hate to sound elitist, but most people just go with their feelings on most things.

      • Could you please delete the comment that shows the email address?

      • To me those people are analogous to those who think whales are fish. The can point to the whale and label it as a whale, but falsely believe it has gills. They have painted themselves into this corner because they assume an agent exists that created the world and knew everything that would transpire from the beginning of time. One that punishes or rewards everyone based on behavior. This is of course unsupported by any actual credible evidence. Despite all that they are not mistaken in seeing the fish like body shape, fin shaped extremities, etc.

        Sam Harris seems to notice the blowhole but misses out on all the attributes that show the whale to be a sea creature. As Kiril pointed out Harris does this in a hypocritical way. He wants to excuse criminals from self rsponsibility for their behaviors yet not those who wish to punish criminals. If criminals can be said to have no choice but to commit crime because it is deterministic then why not the same for those who wish to punish criminals? That (self refutai of moral determinism) is not exactly a new argument either since I both read it before and it is an obvious objection. I’ve never read a good retort.

        There are fatalist religions and believers in those religions have very foolish ideas about determinism. I could associate him with the large quantity of poor thinkers out there, and say he’s playing a shell game. I think Harris would very strongly object if I claimed his was a false kind of determinism that most people who believe in fate don’t subscribe to. He would be right if I did that because it would not be addressing his positions (and doubly wrong if he just happened to be correct). All in all Harris is not being intellectually honest in dismissing compatiblism the way he is.

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  6. Scientifically, reasons come AFTER the choice, as shown by experiments.

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