Forrest Cameranesi Geek of all Trades

On the Will, Freedom, and the Subjects of Morality

Philosophy of will is, so far as I am aware, not generally considered a field of study unto itself, the way that philosophy of mind is, but I consider it a topic of equal importance in the overall structure of philosophical topics. Despite not being considered a field of study unto itself, there is a long history of philosophers addressing the topic of the will, especially its freedom or lack thereof. The history of that topic extends back at least as far as Aristotle, who contemplated something called the problem of future contingents, which concerns whether or not there are yet facts about future events, including about things that people will do in the future.

He and many subsequent philosophers reasoned that if there are already, in the present, facts about what will happen in the future, including the things that people will do, then that implies that those people have no choice but to do those things when those future times arrive, because it is already a fact that they will, which they held would imply that nobody ever has any freedom to choose about anything: no freedom of will. Much debate on the topic since then has hinged merely on the question of whether or not those future events are already determined, a metaphysical question, with both sides of that argument tacitly agreeing that if future events are determined, then nobody ever has any freedom of will.

But in the centuries since then many other philosophers have argued that that assumption shared between both sides of the metaphysical debate over determinism fundamentally mischaracterizes what we ordinarily mean by free will; and that not only does determinism, even if true, pose no threat to freedom of will, but indeterminism might pose an even greater threat. These philosophers have been called "compatibilists", because they hold free will to be compatible with determinism; and in contrast, those who hold them to be incompatible, whether they hold determinism to be true or not, are called "incompatibilists".

Different compatibilists have put forth different views on what is a better way to characterize free will in the sense that we ordinarily mean it, separated from this one metaphysical concern that has overshadowed the entire topic. I agree with all of them that freedom from determinism is not the important kind of freedom for freedom of will, and I consider several of the different things they put forth as better characterizations of free will to be philosophically important kinds of freedom.

But I think only one of them is the correct characterization of freedom of will in the way that we ordinarily mean it, and the importance of it is not metaphysical at all, but rather wholly ethical: what's important about freedom of will is its relationship to moral responsibility, and as I will elaborate, I hold free will to be essentially synonymous with the capacity for moral judgement, the capacity for weighing what is better or worse.

The earliest compatibilists, such as Thomas Hobbes, held that free will is simply the ability to do what one wants: regardless or whether what one will want in the future is already determined in the present, so long as one is free to do whatever that will be when the time comes, as in not physically restrained from doing so as by bars or chains, then one has free will, according to that view. Philosophers today generally consider that ability to be something separate from free will, mere freedom of action, which is not in itself of particular philosophical interest.

Other compatibilists have held that free will is instead the freedom to act without censure or punishment. But that is similarly held to be a topic not to do with the will, but rather to do with political or ethical liberty, which I will address in my later essay on justice.

Contemporary compatibilists, such as Harry Frankfurt and Susan Wolf, instead equate freedom of will with a psychological functionality, a kind of self-control or self-determination. I find that to be the most important and substantial topic regarding the will, and will address it at greater length at the end of this essay.

But first I must address the metaphysical kind of freedom that is held to be of greatest concern by incompatibilists, which I will call "metaphysically free will", as distinct from "psychologically free will". I will treat those as two separate subtopics, analogous to phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness in philosophy of mind.

As in my philosophy of mind, the philosophy of will that I am about to lay out is a hybrid of different positions, a different kind of position for each of three different senses of the word "will".

On Metaphysically Free Will

Metaphysically free will is largely defined by its independence from the functional process of deliberation, in much the same way that phenomenal consciousness is defined by its independence from the functionality that defines access consciousness. If we stipulate the existence of some being, like a computer artificial intelligence, that performs a deliberative process of weighing evidence and priorities and determining a course of action that is exactly like the kind of deliberative process that a human being would do, there would still be an open question as to whether such a being has metaphysically free will. That is because metaphysically free will is not about that function, but about the metaphysics of the causation that underlies that function.

Incompatibilists generally argue that if such a deliberative function programmed into the being behaved deterministically, always giving the same output for the same inputs, in other words always making the same decision about what the best course of action is given the same knowledge of the same circumstances and the same priorities and so on, then it would not have metaphysical freedom of its will, if it could even be said to have a will at all.

But a counterargument, often called "The Mind Argument" for its prominence in a philosophy of mind journal called Mind, argues that if the execution of that function did not happen deterministically but instead sometimes randomly produced outputs that did not follow from the inputs, that would hardly seem to add any kind of substantial freedom to the process, because blindly following a dice roll to make a decision seems, if anything, even less free than deterministically weighing evidence and so on to make that decision. Metaphysically free will is the kind of thing that is at question in these kinds of debates about determinism and randomness, regardless of what exact deliberative function it is that (deterministically, randomly, or somehow otherwise) chooses some course of action.

Without an answer the question of whether the universe is entirely deterministic or not, there are generally three possibilities when it comes to what kinds of beings might possibly have metaphysically free will: either nothing could possibly have it, not even human beings, because the concept is simply confused nonsense; some beings, like humans, could have it, if the universe is not entirely deterministic, but not all beings would thereby have it; or if anything at all could have it, then all beings, not just humans but everything down to trees and rocks and electrons, would have it.

The first of these position, the view that nothing can possibly have metaphysically free will because the concept is confused nonsense, is called hard incompatibilism; while the latter two positions are variations of the view called metaphysical libertarianism, which so far as I know do not have well-established names for themselves, but I will dub them emergent libertarianism and pan-libertarianism for my purposes here.

Against Hard Incompatibilism

I am against hard incompatibilism, strictly speaking, though I am very sympathetic to the motivations for it. The incompatibilist quest for a useful notion of free will that depends on non-determinism, but is not simply randomness, does seem impossibly quixotic, because non-determinism simply is randomness. But I do not consider metaphysically free will to be the useful notion of free will in the first place; that, I hold, is psychologically free will, which will be explored later in this essay. But in answering the question of whether anything could possibly have metaphysically free will or not, as useless a question as that may be to ask, I disagree with the hard incompatibilist that randomness undermines the possibility of it.

Instead, I hold, randomness is the entire essence of it: to have metaphysically free will is just for the being in question to have a behavior, an output of its function, that is not entirely determined by its experience, the input of its function, and that simply is the definition of randomness. Too much randomness, or insufficient determinism, does indeed undermine the possibility of psychologically free will, which depends on an adequate degree of determinism to reliably maintain the functionality that constitutes it, but that is a separate question from whether anything has metaphysically free will.

Against the hard incompatibilist, I hold that it is possible for things to have metaphysically free will, because that would simply mean that determinism was false, which it very well could be. According to contemporary theories of physics, it effectively is. And if we instead slightly loosen the criterion for metaphysically free will from strict indeterminism to mere unpredictability, I hold that that is a necessary feature of any possible universe, regardless of whether determinism is strictly true or not, because predictability is self-defeating.

An indeterministic universe would of course be unpredictable, but even a perfectly deterministic universe could not possibly be perfectly predictable, because the ability to perfectly predict the future is equivalent to information from the future coming to the past, and such backward transfer of information necessarily changes the future that proceeds from the moment of prediction. In other words, predicting the future necessarily changes it, and thus renders the prediction, to some (if perhaps negligible) extent, inaccurate. So any universe either has no predictors, and so is not predictable for that reason; or it has predictors, like ourselves, which then make it unpredictable.

This explains our intuitive experience of having metaphysically free will: whenever our future behavior has supposedly been predicted, we can always in principle just look at that prediction and decide to do the opposite of it out of spite or to prove the point. We could even just build a non-sentient predicting computer, and a simple non-sentient robot that merely does the opposite of whatever it's predicted to do, and introduce unpredictability into the world that way. No magical or especially human capacity for unpredictability is required.

These kinds of unstable feedback loops in dynamical systems, even supposedly perfectly deterministic systems, are called "chaotic". All chaotic features render such systems inherently unpredictable, even if such predictor-spiting processes are not involved, for no other reason than the process of computing an accurate prediction in the face of such unstable complexity would necessarily take longer than the system being predicted would take to reach the future we're trying to predict.

Daniel Dennett calls this kind of unpredictability "elbow room", and holds it to provide for a kind of "compatibilist" free will that does not clash with determinism. But I hold that this sense of "free will" is still essentially the same sense as the one that incompatibilists concern themselves with – unpredictability is still not freedom of will in the ordinary, morally relevant sense, the sense that I call "psychologically free will" – and so is not really "compatibilist" in the same way that other forms of compatibilism are. And since we have no way in principle to tell whether the universe is deterministic other than our ability to predict it, the very existence of such chaotic systems – including predictors like ourselves – necessarily renders the universe indistinguishable from a nondeterministic one.

Against Emergent Libertarianism

I am also against what I earlier dubbed emergent libertarianism, as a part of my general position against strong emergentism, as already elaborated in my previous essay on the mind. I am against such strong emergentism on the grounds that it must draw some arbitrary line somewhere, the line between things that are held to be entirely without anything at all like metaphysically free will and things that suddenly have it in full, and thus violates my previously established position against dogmatism. But there are two different senses of "emergentism" sometimes distinguished from each other, and only one of them that I am against.

The kind I am not against is called "weak" emergentism. That merely holds that there are useful aggregate properties to speak of at some larger scales, that ignore irrelevant details at smaller scales; but it doesn't hold that anything genuinely new starts to happen when the larger-scale systems are constructed out of smaller parts. On the other hand, the "strong" emergentism that I am against holds some wholes to be truly greater than the sums of their parts, and thus that when certain things are arranged in certain ways, wholly new properties apply to the whole that are not mere aggregates or composites of the properties of the parts.

A useful example is temperature, which is a weakly emergent property of the motion of molecules in a substance: if you modeled the motion of all the molecules in a substance, you would end up modeling something that exhibited temperature "for free", without adding any new laws to the model; though if that was the scale you were interested in, you could usefully model just that aggregate property of temperature instead and ignore the details of the motion of individual molecules. In contrast, if you could not possibly model temperature without explicitly adding rules that assign such a property to aggregates of molecules, even though no particular molecules had that property, then temperature would be a strongly emergent property.

We do not yet have a complete account of all physical sciences that perfectly reduces them all down to fundamental physics, but the question at hand is whether it is reasonable to expect that that can eventually be done, or if instead it is just in principle not possible. Just as in the pragmatic principles underlying my entire philosophy, I think it is merely giving up to assume that it cannot be done, rather than to assume that it can in principle and we just haven't done it yet.

Reduction and Emergence

Note however that I am not here endorsing what Daniel Dennett calls "greedy reductionism", which I would instead term "strong reductionism" in contrast to the "weak reductionism" that I do endorse (as does Dennett), in parallel to "weak" and "strong" emergence. Strong or greedy reductionism would say, of the temperature example above, that because temperature is thus reducible there is in fact no such thing as temperature. That is essentially just eliminativism about temperature. Weak reductionism, on the other hand, only says that temperature is understandable in terms of something more fundamental than itself.

This mix of both weak emergence and weak reduction to the exclusion of either strong reduction or strong emergence is simply about having no discontinuities in our understanding: having every account of everything transition seamlessly into each other with no sudden new fundamental laws of nature added anywhere. It's about being able in principle to zoom into the details of something on one level of abstraction and see a complex arrangements of things on another lower level, or zoom out and ignore the details on the smaller scale to see new structures on a larger scale, understanding how all of these different kinds of objects at different scales relate to each other.

As specifically regards philosophy of will, strong emergentism holds that when simpler objects, that do not themselves have metaphysically free will on this account, are arranged into the right relations with each other, wholly new volitional properties apply to the composite object they create: a being with metaphysically free will is created from parts none of which had metaphysically free will. Which would mean that wholly deterministic, predictable parts, when put together the right way, would produce a system that is non-deterministically unpredictable.

I do agree with what I think is the intended thrust of the general emergentist position, that will as we ordinarily speak of it is something that just comes about when physical things are arranged in the right way. But I think that will as we ordinarily speak of it is psychologically free will, to be addressed later in this essay, and that psychologically free will is a purely functional, predictable property that is built up out of the ordinary predictable behavior of the things that compose a psychologically willful being, and nothing wholly new emerges out of nothing like magic when things are just arranged in the right way.

So when it comes to metaphysically free will, either it is wholly absent from the most fundamental building blocks of physical things and so is still absent from anything built out of them, including humans, or else it is present at least in humans, and so something of it must be present in the stuff out of which humans are built, and the stuff out of which that stuff is built, and so on so that at least something prototypical of metaphysically free will as humans exhibit it is already present in everything, to serve as the building blocks of more advanced kinds of metaphysically free will like humans exhibit.

Pan-Libertarianism

That latter position is what I have dubbed pan-libertarianism: the view that everything at least has something prototypical of metaphysical freedom as we mean it regarding human will. That is the position that I hold: the kind of free will that incompatibilists are concerned about, that I've called "metaphysically free will", is something that everything, even the most fundamental particles in the universe, has, even if sometimes only to a negligible extent.

But in saying that everything has metaphysically free will, I'm not really saying very much of substance. It is merely the flip side of my panpsychist philosophy of mind, in light of the relationship between experience and behavior outlined in my earlier essay on reality: every experience is in truth an interaction, seen equally well from a different perspective as a behavior instead of an experience. So everything that unpredictable, chaotic predictors like us are capable of experiencing is also being affected by us, to at least a negligible extent, and so changed in some way just as unpredictable as our own behavior.

Indeed, just as I compared that kind of panpsychist phenomenal experience to quantum-mechanical "observation" (distinguished from a more useful and robust access-conscious sense of "observation"), so too in quantum mechanics are those "observations" held to in fact be simply interactions, and it is those very interactions that introduce randomness, or at least the subjective appearance of randomness, to a quantum-mechanical model of the world. Such quantum models otherwise model everything as predictably evolving wave functions until the moment of "observation", or interaction with another system, at which point, at least from the perspective of the "observer", the wave function appears to unpredictably collapse into one of many possible classical states.

I hold that everything, even simple particles like electrons, has "metaphysically free will", but only to the same extent that they have "phenomenal consciousness": in an obscure technical sense they do, but only a pragmatically useless sense of the word that is only the topic of long-intractable philosophical quandaries.

Everything has control (and thus freedom) of some sort, in that its very existence changes the flow of events – otherwise they would not appear to exist at all, and so not be real at all on my empirical realist account of ontology – but only some things have self-control, and that is what the rest of this essay will discuss. Being able to predict what someone or something will do is not the same as them being forced to do it in any practical sense, and likewise, merely being unpredictable is not a pragmatically useful kind of freedom.

On Psychologically Free Will

The pragmatically useful sense of "free will" is, I hold, a functional one, just like the pragmatically useful sense of "consciousness". Just producing behavior that is not predictable is not really anything of note; it is the function that produces that behavior that may or may not be worth considering "free willed" in the ordinary sense that we use that term.

And not only is unpredictability unnecessary for such a function to constitute free will in that ordinary sense, but too much chaos, or too little predictability, would actually undermine that function, because I hold freedom of will to be essentially the ability to evaluate reasons to do one thing over another, to weigh possible intentions against each other and decide which of them is the right one to intend, and then for that evaluation to be actually effective on your behavior (as opposed to either not doing such an evaluation to begin with, or to finding yourself behaving in ways you had already decided you shouldn't, as from a compulsion or phobia). Unpredictability would only add errors to the evaluative process, or impede it's effectiveness upon behavior, and so only serve to undermine free will, not to enhance it.

I call this combination of pan-libertarianism about metaphysically free will and functionalism about psychologically free will "functionalist pan-libertarianism". And like with consciousness, defining exactly what the function of a free will is in full detail is more the work of psychology (mapping the functions of naturally evolved wills) and computer science (developing functions for artificially created wills) than it is the proper domain of philosophy, but for the rest of this essay I will outline a brief sketch of the kinds of functions that I think are important to qualify something as a free will, in the ordinary sense by which we would say that humans definitely sometimes have one, and dogs occasionally might, but a tree probably never does, and a rock definitely does not.

On Appetites and Desires

Will Functions

As with consciousness, the first of these important functions, which I call "sentience", is to differentiate experiences toward the construction of two separate models, one of them a model of the world as it is, and the other a model of the world as it ought to be. These differentiate aspects of an experience, which as outlined in my essay on reality is an interaction between oneself and the world, into those that inform about about the world, including what kind of things are most suited to it, which form the sensitive aspect of the experience; and those that inform about oneself, and what kind of world would be most suited to oneself, which form the appetitive aspect of the experience.

From these two models we then derive the output behavior from a comparison of the two, so as to attempt to make the world that is into the world that ought to be. This is in distinction from the simpler function of most primitive objects, where experiences directly provoke behaviors in a much simpler stimulus-response mechanism, and no experience is merely indicative of the nature of the world, but all are directly imperative on the next behavior of the object.

Those experiences that are channelled into the model of the world as it is I call "sensations", and I have already discussed them, their interpretations into perceptions, and the reflection upon perceptions to arrive at beliefs, in my earlier essay on the mind.

Meanwhile, those experiences that are channelled into the model of the world as it ought to be I call "appetites". Appetites are the raw, uninterpreted experiences, like the feeling of pain or thirst or hunger. When those appetites are then interpreted, patterns in them detected, identified as abstractions, that can then be related to each other symbolically, analytically, that is part of the function that I call "intelligence" (the other part of intelligence handling the equivalent process with sensation), and those interpreted, abstracted appetites output by intelligence are what I call "desires", or "emotions".

On Intentions

None of this is yet sufficient to call a will free in our ordinary sense of the word. For that, we need all of the above plus also another function, a reflexive function that turns that sentient intelligence back upon the being in question itself, and forms perceptions and desires about its own process of interpreting experiences, and then acts upon itself to critique and judge itself and then filter the conclusions it has come to, accepting or rejecting them as either soundly concluded or not. That reflexive function in general I call "sapience", and the aspect of it concerned with critiquing and judging and filtering desires I call "free will" proper.

Reflexive Functions

(I see the concepts of "id", "ego", and "superego" as put forward by Sigmund Freud arising out of this reflexive judgement as well, with the third-person view of oneself that one is casting judgement upon being the "id", the third-person view of oneself casting judgement down on one being the "superego", and the first-person view of oneself, being judged by the superego while in turn judging the id, being the "ego"; an illusory tripartite self, as though in a mental hall of mirrors).

The output of that function – an experience taken as imperative, interpreted into a desire, and accepted by sapient reflection – is what I call an "intention".

As you may recall from my earlier essay on language, I take such intentions to be equivalent to what are sometimes called "moral beliefs", or more accurately, the normative equivalent of beliefs, prescriptive thoughts or judgements (as distinguished both from descriptive thoughts, or beliefs, and from prescriptive feelings, or desires). The forming of intentions is what I take to constitute willing, so the will (and its intentions, and their predecessors like desires and appetites) is on this account the "subject of morality" in the same way that the mind is the "subject of reality": it is the aspect of subjective experience that is concerned with morality, with what ought to be.

The will, in this more important sense of psychologically free will rather than metaphysically free will, is not at all about causation or lack thereof, but about purpose, a prescriptive issue, not a descriptive one. And the efficacy of willing upon actual behavior is what I take to constitute freedom of the will: you have free will if the process of deliberating about what is the best course of action is effective in making you do what you decided would be the best course of action; which is about causation, yes, but only in that it depends upon it, not in that it is threatened by it.

The proper conducting of this process of willing or intention-formation is the subject of the next essay, which, as promised earlier, will also tackle the last of the three philosophically interesting senses of "free will" laid out near the start of this essay, the sense equivalent to liberty, as well as its inverse, duty.


Continue to the next essay, On Deontology, Intention, and the Methods of Justice.