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.