Choice and Outcomes

So I’m reading “Living Without Free Will” by Derk Pereboom.  I’m only two chapters in, and so far it’s not really talking at all about how to live without free will or even showing that we don’t have it, but instead is basically summarizing — and somewhat attempting to refute — the competing views on free will, and so is summarizing a lot of the points found in “Four Views on Free Will”, usually using the same people as references.  So there isn’t really anything new yet.  However, while reading the chapters some new things occur to me and so I’m going to comment on them.  And in the first chapter it’s about Frankfurt examples and how this demonstrates what choice really means to us.

To refresh everyone’s memory, Frankfurt examples are examples aiming at the idea that free will requires that there be alternate possibilities by inventing cases where there aren’t any actual alternate possibilities, but we still think that the person chose to do it anyway.  In general, these cases tend to be ones where someone is allowed to work through the entire decision-making process, but if that process produces the “wrong” decision some external force intervenes and “switches” the choice — and the outcome — to the “right” one.  So, obviously, if they chose the wrong one that wouldn’t be a free choice, but surely if they made the right choice the first time they made a free choice, right?  So this proves that free will does not rely on having alternative possibilities or being able to do otherwise.  And there are lots and lots of examples where people try to save that view from the examples and other counter-examples and so on and so forth.

What struck me while reading things this time is that this is really proving something that was obvious but that our language was somewhat hiding.  Free will was always about choices, not necessarily about outcomes.  So what we want is to have the ability to choose otherwise, even if we can’t or couldn’t implement that choice.  And why this is obvious is that we always had the possibility of choosing to do something and yet discovering as we try to implement that choice that it can’t be done, or failing to implement it, and we don’t see that as striking at free will.  If I choose to do something and then discover as I try to do it that I can’t, we don’t think that our original choice was invalid or not a free choice.  Instead, we usually think that at the very least we decided to try to do something but ultimately ended up being unable to do it.

Let me return to my standard example of this:  someone choosing between Sloppy Joes and poutine for lunch.  They hem and haw and pore over the menu and finally decided to order Sloppy Joes.  And then the waitress informs them that the cafeteria has run out of Sloppy Joes and so they can’t have that for lunch.  We clearly wouldn’t think that their entire decision-making process was invalidated by that.  Their decision-making process did indeed settle on having Sloppy Joes for lunch.  But when they tried to actually implement the decision, they were prevented from doing it by the fact that there weren’t any left.  So they had to have the poutine.  If those were the only two choices, then there was only one outcome:  they were going to have poutine for lunch (putting aside them leaving and going somewhere else for lunch, but let’s ignore that for now).  But the decision-making process still proceeded and came to a conclusion, and nothing that happened later can invalidate that.  If it was a free choice, it remained a free choice even if the implementation of the choice failed.

This also carries on to the more classic example from John Locke, of the person staying in a room that is locked and so they can’t do anything else but stay in that room.  If they are unaware of that and never try to leave the room, could we say that they are freely choosing to stay in the room?  And the same thing applies.  They are free to decide to stay in the room or to leave the room, but the only choice that they can do successfully is to stay in the room.  As soon as they try to leave the room, they will discover that they can’t leave the room.  But they surely can make a free choice to stay in the room (if they are unaware that they can’t leave it).  And, in fact, I’d argue that they can make a free choice to leave the room, right up until they discover that they actually can’t.

The reason why that might seem confusing is because of how we talk about it when our choices fail.  Let’s return to my lunch example.  How the person is likely to describe it later is that they tried to choose Sloppy Joes, but they were out of them, so they chose the poutine instead.  So it implies that not being able to implement their choice impacted their actual choice.  Instead of saying that they choose, failed, and then chose again (or had no choice), they say that they would have chosen X but instead had to choose Y.  And this is actually not an unreasonable way of thinking about it, since in general if we are aware that an option isn’t available we won’t choose it, even if we acknowledge that if it was available we would have chosen that.  So if the waitress had told the person that they were out of Sloppy Joes before the person made their decision, that would have been a perfectly good description of what happened.

However, the person made their decision before knowing that they couldn’t implement it, and only after discovering that switched to another decision.  So they made a free decision to try to do something but failed to implement it.  And that’s how we really should describe it:  I chose to try to do X, but I failed to do X, so in response I chose to do Y.  This, then, applies to the locked room as well.  The person in the locked room chose to try to leave the room, but failed to do so because the door was locked, and so had to stay in the room instead.  Our common language tends to bind the choices to the outcomes because the main purpose of our choices is to make a choice to generate actions to attempt to produce outcomes, but in the context of free will the really important thing is making the choice, not implementing it to produce a specific outcome.  After all, if someone tried to do something but chose a sequence of events that by happenstance produced a different outcome, we wouldn’t say that they chose that outcome, but instead that they chose to try to produce one outcome but instead accidentally produced another outcome.  We acknowledge that we can choose to try to produce an outcome and ultimately not succeed at producing that outcome.

I submit that the Frankfurt examples — or, at least, their damage to the “alternate possibilities” idea — are all examples of that confusion, where we focus overmuch on there being alternate outcomes when what we really care about are alternate possible choices.  For free will, we want to be able to choose to do otherwise, even if we can’t actually successfully do otherwise.  Tunneling down to specific outcomes and possibilities only confuses the issue and moves us away from focusing on choice and decision-making processes and towards what can happen in the world, which is not at all what we wanted or what free will is really about.

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