Jonathan MS Pearce on Free Will

A while ago, I commented on a post of Jonathan MS Pearce’s over at “A Tippling Philosopher”, and had an aside about how some things he does there and in his books — I’ve read a couple of them but haven’t commented on them yet — annoy me, and specifically that he will do things like dismiss the free will counter on some positions and then demand that those who want to use that argument demonstrate that free will exists before they can do so.  Not only is that going to be very difficult for people who are not philosophers to do, it also takes an open and long-standing debate in philosophy and asserts that the solution has been found and that it’s hard determinism that has won.  This is actually really, really bad for free will because in general most philosophers are compatibilists, not hard determinists, but almost all of them will agree that the question has not yet been settled.  Pearce himself commented on my post talking about how there is no coherent idea of libertarian free will, which eventually led to him sending me an article in an upcoming book that talks about free will, which is now going to lead to me talking about it, because obviously I disagree that hard determinism is the correct way to look at free will, and over whether we have free will at all.

So let me start with his opening issue.  Like almost all hard determinists, he starts by defining free will as “the ability to do otherwise”, and then works through an example of what that would mean and why it doesn’t work:

Imagine a decision. For example, let us take Wendy. She decides at 09:15 to give $5 to a homeless person she passes in the street. Now imagine that the world continues for any amount of time (say, ten minutes). We then rewind the world back to 09:15. The LFWer believes that Wendy, at 09:15, could just as well have decided not to have given the money to the homeless
person, rationally and consciously.

The issue is that, speaking as a LFWer — Libertarian Free Willer — I don’t believe that, and again most people who care about free will at all don’t believe that.  This sort of situation is what follows if you take the vague and somewhat folk view of “The ability to do otherwise” and try to use that simple basis as the basis for a deep analysis of free will, in much the same manner as people may argue that evolution makes no sense because “If humans evolved from apes, then how come there are still apes?”.  While often proponents of evolution consider that to be a sign that the people making that argument simply don’t understand evolution at all, that’s not really the case.  We can make the objection seem more reasonable by changing it to “How come humans changed so radically from those ape-like creatures, but apes didn’t?’.  The mistake, though, is that when we say that humans evolved from apes or even ape-like creatures what we mean is that there was a common ancestor between humans and apes that had more characteristics of apes than they had of humans.  But the mechanism of evolution would explain that the reason for the differences is due to differences in environment and mutations that caused apes to evolve less or in different ways than humans did, which explains the differences.  The phrase, then, only points to the ancestor, and for evolution the ancestor is less important than the process, which the statement references but doesn’t analyze.  To really do a proper analysis, you need to look more at the process and less at the vague explanatory statement that describes the relationship between humans, apes and that common ancestor.

The same thing applies to the folk phrase of “The ability to do otherwise”.  Taking that as the totality of free will and analyzing free will from that point produces the exact problem we see here, where the focus is on whether a different decision can be made and not on what it means to make a proper free decision.  So then we fall into the pit of winding back time and claiming that different decisions have to be made no matter how ridiculous, which as Pearce notes decouples free will from reasons and reasoning, which would then produce a rather strange idea of free will.  But when we analyze what is important and meaningful about free will, what we discover is that free will decisions are crucially related to reasons and to the decision-making processes that are responsive to reasons.  What we mean when we say that they could do otherwise in that situation, really, is to note that the outcome is not determined until the decision-making process finishes, and whatever decision that process comes to is the one that we will follow.  Now, all rational decision-making processes — like the ones humans tend to use when they deliberate — will respond to reasons, and so an LFWer would have to conclude that if her decision-making process proceeded as it did the first time then she would indeed make the same decision even if we rolled back time.

This actually goes a lot further.  Decisions are made on the basis of us examining the situation we are in and assessing the available options on the basis of what we desire and what we believe to be true to pick the action that maximizes the satisfaction of our desires — including the relative importance of those desires — given what we think is true about the world.  Thus, for a perfect decision-making process, there really is only one right decision or, if there is more than one that is equally important, all you could do is randomly choose between them.  However, in humans our decision-making processes are not perfect, and so we will decide to take suboptimal actions for various reasons, including that we just don’t happen to think of those actions or forget desires we have or beliefs we have when considering what action to take.  For example, imagine that I’m deciding what to have to supper.  I ponder a number of options and then decide that I’m going to cook chicken strips, and start cooking them.  And then I remember that I had leftover spaghetti and wanted to have that because it’s too much to be eaten as a snack or small meal but for the next few days I have other things that I wanted to eat as meals, and if I delay any of those meals they’ll go bad before I can eat them.  However, now that I’ve started cooking I can’t change what I will eat, but if I had remembered about the spaghetti I would have made a different decision.  So given the beliefs and desires I have, there is only one decision that a perfect decision-making process would come to:  I would have the leftover spaghetti.  But since my decision-making process is not perfect, I can come to any number of other decisions, and that is determined by the decision-making process itself and the considerations I make or fail to make while making the decision.

The thing is, though, the decision in the case above isn’t random either, which with totally determined are the two options that Pearce — and, to be fair, most people in the debate — allows for.  The thing is, that decision doesn’t seem to be totally determined, as it does indeed rely on me not considering something that it was perfectly reasonable for me to consider, but it isn’t random either because it not only is based on the other desires and beliefs that I’ve considered but also critically on the desires and beliefs that I forgot to consider.  Ultimately, what we have when we look at our decisions even in such simple and common cases they definitely seem to be reason-responsive, which is certainly not random but also at least isn’t determined by the desires and beliefs we clearly have, but only by the ones that are considered there.

So when Pearce later asks what the world would look like if we had free will, while the simple answer from LFWers would be “Like the one we have, since we have it!”, we can give him a more detailed answer here.  We can see that what we should see when we examine the actions of people when they make decisions that we consider free will decisions is that they should be reason-responsive.  What this means is that if you take the same person and put them in similar situations, they should act in a way that aligns with their basic character and desires and beliefs, and so much of the time they will make similar or perhaps even identical decisions.  And yet, at times even in almost identical situations they will make completely different decisions and take completely different actions, but in general you won’t be able to find something in the environment that has changed that explains the difference, but you will be able to find a “reason” for it so it isn’t entirely random either.  They in general won’t do it “for no reason” but if you try to look outside them to the cause for the different outcome you won’t be able to find it there, but instead only by appealing to their internal beliefs and desires.

For example, imagine that I’m going down to the cafeteria for lunch, and I’m offered a choice between poutine or Sloppy Joes, to use one of my favourite examples.  Given that I really like poutine and dislike Sloppy Joes, there is almost no chance that I will choose anything other than poutine.  While I definitely could choose Sloppy Joes — and so could “do otherwise” — my beliefs and desires are such that I’m never going to.  In order to understand why I will never choose Sloppy Joes over poutine, you will not appeal to the outside world but instead will have to appeal to my inner beliefs and desires.

So what we will see in the world is that in general people will make decisions in line with what we’d consider their basic personalities, but the decisions will not always align with that but if the decisions don’t align with that we will be able to find a reason why it didn’t.  To continue the food examples, some people on going to a restaurant will always order the same thing and will be very hesitant to try any new items that appear on the menu, and some people will always order something different and be eager to try any new menu items.  And yet, either of those people may change that behaviour on certain days or at certain restaurants.  The person who always wants to try something different may, at a particular restaurant, always order the same thing, and the person who always wants to order the same thing may try something different or a new menu item.  But this won’t be random.  They will always have a reason for the change in their typical behaviour, and it will be internal, not external.  So the person who atypically decides to stick with one order might do so because they really, really love that dish and can only get it there, and so every time they get the chance to have it they take it.  The person who generally doesn’t order the new item may look at it and find it appealing.  Heck, someone who always orders the same thing may simply decide one day that they don’t feel like the same old thing and so feel like doing something new.  So they would be deciding to give in to a lower-level — and possibly more determined — feeling that they could resist and have resisted in the past.  That doesn’t make it random, but instead keeps it as reason-responsive, even if their “reason” is just to avoid considering and following their reasons, like someone deciding to flip a coin to decide something rather than working it out in detail.

So the key to free will and our decisions as we see them in the world is that we need them to be reason-responsive in a way that determined outcomes and random/probabilistic outcomes don’t seem to be.  If we look at a determined decision — and examples like the Libet experiments — we see that they separate our deliberations from the outcome, and so the reasons we think we are using to make those decisions don’t actually have to be the “reasons” we actually took that action.  A determined world leaves no room for anything else to be the causally determining factor, and since it’s only in our conscious deliberations that we truly consider reasons that would have to have a causal impact on the outcome, and determinism says that it can’t do that.  On the other hand, random or even probabilistic methods don’t allow for reasons to play a strongly determining role.  Probabilistic ones might allow reasons to bias the outcomes one way or the other, but it really does seem like reasons — and, in particular, the reasons that we consciously consider — play a determining role in what actions we take, not merely a biasing one.  So neither of these work for our experience of making decisions.

And speaking as someone who rejects materialist ideas of mind, these considerations are what characterizes the entire debate:  it doesn’t seem like a purely physical mechanism has any room to actually take into account things like meaning, reasons, intentionality, intensionality and all of the things that seem to make humans actually intelligent.  While some may point to neural nets as examples of purely physical intelligence, the interesting thing about them is that they actually don’t decide things on the basis of reasons at all, and you cannot ask them what their reasons are for deciding what they decide.  Any determinations of the reasons behind their decisions have to come from humans, not from them.  We can contrast this with inference engines that can give the reasons for their decisions, but we can see that under the hood all they are doing is symbolic matching and explanation and so there is little reason to think they really understand what those things mean.  Ultimately, what is important for human intelligence is meaning, and strictly physical systems don’t seem to have any way to actually get that.  As noted above, that’s the issue with free will:  we need reasons, and the alternatives don’t seem to be able to actually provide reasons.

So after clarifying what the free will really means, we can address his comment on compatibilists:

Compatibilists deny LFW too. But they take the term free will and mold it into something new; they redefine it.

This is a common take from hard determinists on compatibilists, but it’s actually incorrect.  Compatibilists don’t want to redefine free will, but instead want to clarify what is important about it, given that the arguments from hard determinists don’t really seem to be making a dent in convincing either the common people or most philosophers that we really don’t have free will.  And while Pearce casts their view as generally being about being able to do what we want to do, the common thread among compatibilists tends to be pretty much what I’ve pointed out above:  they’ve identified that what is really important to us about free will is that our decision-making processes are what determine our actions, and so try to find ways so that our decision-making processes can be determined and yet still be meaningfully determining our actions.  I’m not a compatibilist because I don’t think that can be done, but I respect their move even if I think it won’t bear fruit.  Pearce’s comment here only highlights that the simple view of free will as “ability to do otherwise” is insufficient to properly analyze the philosophical debate around free will.

Which we can now finally return to.  In general, LFWers will say that if her decision-making process ran properly and nothing changes her reasons, then she will make the same decision again and that will still, in fact, be a free decision.  Compatibilists will argue the same.  And I dare say that the average person would say the same thing.  Of course, there have been numerous psychological studies that show that the average person will give deterministic or libertarian answers to questions depending on the context, which I think the above discussion can explain.  If we focus on Wendy deliberating on her decision and have a good reason not to give the money to the homeless person, I suspect that in the above thought experiment most people will answer that she will not change her decision, which would look deterministic.  However, if we focus on Wendy regretting her decision not to give the money to the homeless person then I suspect that most people will say that she would change her decision.  In both cases, we’d be focusing on the reasons she had for the decision in the first place and how “proper” those decisions were.  If she had a good reason for not giving the money, that won’t change just because time was rewound.  But if she feels that based on what she knew at the time she made the wrong decision, then we think it possible that the decision-making process could work out better the second time around.  Again, as noted, it’s all about the reasons.

So, after all of that, let’s see what’s left to talk about in the essay.

Some libertarians will claim that, yes, we are largely determined, or influenced, but that we can overcome this problem with our own volition. This is what I call the 80/20 Problem. That is to say, if an LFWer claims that they are influenced, say, 80% then this leaves 20% of a decision making the process open to agent origination (this is often put forward by proponents I have spoken to). The problem is that all the logical issues I mentioned above are now distilled into the 20%. In effect, it makes the problem worse. The LFWer here accepts much determination, but allows a small window of opportunity, but does not escape the grounding objection and any other logical issue with causality previously expressed. The problem of LFW is even more acute, then.

I’ve gone over a lot of free will books and views lately, and the most common view that seems like the one Pearce is referencing is the idea that in general things are determined but that our decisions can interrupt that determination and substitute a different path and so a different action.  This avoids the need to have free will being constantly active while preserving our decision-making mechanisms.  So it isn’t just that it’s a certain percentage, but instead that it’s under certain conditions, which alleviates the problem that Pearce is referring to here.  And, of course, no libertarian has ever claimed that everything we do must be driven by free choices, allowing for things like automatic and instinctive and emotional responses and the like to be determined, but that we can override them if we decide we want to, as I talked about with the restaurant example.

Which is important, because in the next long section Pearce spends a lot of time talking about genetic and psychological components that impact the decisions we make.  But libertarians do not deny that things like that can influence our decisions.  They only argue that they don’t determine them.  What we can have are predispositions or influences, and those influences and predispositions can cause our decision-making processes to come out with less than ideal conclusions, but ultimately it’s still our decision-making processes that make the final decision.  And, in fact, these sorts of things actually support libertarianism more than determinism, because we can see that people with these things often have radically different outcomes in the very areas where those things are most relevant.  We know that there’s a genetic predisposition for alcoholism, and yet while children of alcoholics disproportionately become alcoholics as well, the children of alcoholics run the gamut from alcoholics to people who never drink to people who drink normally.  Pearce talks about priming but again all that does is make people more likely to make those choices, but many people in the experiments don’t make the choices they are primed to make.  The most interesting example Pearce gives is this:

Liane Young and her colleagues have astonishingly found that in making moral judgments, a key area of the brain is a knot of nerve cells known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ), and that by sending in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), they were able to change people’s moral judgments. 18 The judgments of the subjects shifted from moral principle to verdicts based on outcome (in philosophy we might say from deontology to consequentialism). The ramifications of which are that such judgments are physical in nature or grounding and that physical influences in the brain are likely to have an effect on core moral judgments.

However, that example never actually said that it determines their decisions or that it was even moral decisions, but that it focused them more on considering the consequences of their actions than the strict morality of them.  As noted above, that could be just impacting our decision-making processes to make them less — or more, depending on what your view of morality is — correct.  So it’s not really changing our moral judgements because it isn’t clear from the example that people still thought of it as a moral decision.  At any rate, it’s all influence, and libertarians accept evidence.  And as Pearce himself notes, the issue with Libet-type experiments is that they don’t look like actual decisions of the sort that we care about.  (I’ve already addressed Wegner’s view here).

Here Pearce highlights something that is always a problem for hard determinists (Jerry Coyne has fallen into this trap consistently):

The point I want to make here is that most people think that such a tumor would abrogate moral responsibility in the agent. In other words, Whitman should not be deemed fully morally culpable for his actions since his brain was impaired: he couldn’t help himself. I want to look at this claim because it implies that a neurotypical person is categorically different to
someone with a brain tumor.

I contest this.

Of course, the tumor makes a person act differently to that which they would have done. But all it actually does is change one form of determined outcome into another. It is not, I posit, a categorical difference. I think people make this mistake too often such as in the sort of claim that follows: “I think it’s not sensible to infer anything about ‘normal’ cognition from experience of people who exhibit obviously-abnormal cognition.”

The issue is that even hard determinists need to consider the case of tumors or abnormal brain states or else nothing can make sense.  There is a significant difference between someone who has a brain condition that short circuits their decision-making process that makes them act in a certain way and that way following from their decision-making process.  We need to treat those people completely differently, and differently in a way that aligns with what we think of as moral responsibility.  Pearce may argue that these things are all determined, but we still need to make the distinctions that he contests that we need.  And one of the arguments that compatibilists make against hard determinists is that they argue for rejecting these concepts and distinctions but in the end need to reinsert them so that they can explain human behaviour.  So if the compatibilist move would work and continue to make sense of human behaviour but also accept determinism, there seems to be no reason for hard determinism at all.  And we know that we have to treat the kleptomaniac and the person who steals to feed their family and the person who steals for the heck of it differently, no matter what we call the distinctions that justify that different treatment.

I don’t want to get too deep into discussions of God, but at the end Pearce basically uses the ideas around free will to argue that the nature of God as defined in Christianity, at least, makes it so that we can’t have free will and so that God Himself can’t have free will.  Let me just address these briefly.

First, Pearce takes on the pretty standard argument that God’s omniscience means that He knows everything that we are going to do before we do it, and so we can’t do anything other than what He knows we will do, and so we can’t have free will.  So imagine that I get the ability to go ahead into the future, and if I do so I see that you are going to do something, but when I return to the present I do nothing with that knowledge.  I have no causal contact with you.  If I have no causal contact with you after I gain that knowledge, that knowledge I have cannot play a causal role in your decision.  And if it can’t play a causal role in your decision, then the fact that I merely say it cannot change the causal chains that produced that decision.  So my knowledge cannot cause your decision and so cannot override whatever causal process produces it, so my knowledge in and of itself cannot determine your choice, and so cannot take away your free will.  So simply observing the outcome of a free choice before it was technically made cannot turn it into a non-free choice without it somehow actually causally determining the choice itself, and God’s omniscience is an observation, not a cause, so that in and of itself cannot mean that we do not have free will.

In general, then, what we think of when we think that being able to simply observe a choice before it was made means that it cannot be free is that the only way to be able to do that is if the world is such that all choices are, in fact, determined.  The future must already exist at the time of the choice and so must also be determined at the time of the choice or else how could we actually observe it?  This, however, is not a safe assumption.  Take the case of the Prophets from Deep Space 9.  They could see the future, but only because they themselves were outside of time and so the idea of the past, present and future made no sense to them whatsoever.  They were indeed outside of time.  So, then, given that their knowledge didn’t have any causal impact on anyone (er, for the most part, as they did interfere in the affairs of people inside of time), is it necessarily the case that we needed to have a process that could determine everything so that the “future” could exist for them to observe?  Being outside of time, they could progress up and down the “timeline” at will at any point that time exists, but that would only mean that they technically came in “at the end”, once everything had been done.  If they are only observing, then all they’d see are the free will choices that people have made, and would have no causal impact on them.  So the choices could still be free and yet they’d technically see them “before” they happen.  God is noted as being outside of time, and so again it isn’t at all clear that his omniscience would impact our free will.

(Note that, yes, there are issues for the Prophets and God who do interfere in the timeline.  That’s not an issue I want to take up here since it isn’t Pearce’s original comment).

In the second argument, Pearce argues that God’s perfect nature means that He can only do what is maximally loving (Pearce’s example) and so since He can do nothing else He doesn’t have free will.  However, as noted above a perfectly rational agent will also do the thing that is most in line with their beliefs, desires and nature.  That is not a clash with free will, but is instead the definition of free will.  So that God will always perfectly exercise his free will in line with his nature is simply the result of the fact that, unlike us, his decision-making processes are perfect and so always perfectly reflect his free will, a state that we can only aspire to but never achieve.

Ultimately, Pearce tried to argue that free will is logically inconsistent and so no one can credibly think that free will exists.  As we’ve seen in this post, I strongly beg to differ, and think that I’ve made a good stab at it.  The ball, then, is back in Pearce’s court since someone clearly has tried to take on his arguments against free will and clearly finds them lacking.


5 Responses to “Jonathan MS Pearce on Free Will”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    Hi there, just reading the first paragraph, two things.

    1) minor one, but the chapter I sent is actually published already a few years back in john Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science

    2) I am both a hard determinist and a compatibilist. It depends on how you define free will. If it is the real, conscious and rational to do otherwise in a given scenario, then I am an HD. If it is to do what I desire, then I am a Comp.

    For me, it is not so much what I am, but what I deny. I deny LFW.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

      …real, conscious and rational ABILITY

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Part and parcel of compatibilist views is that the definitions that we have been using are wrong and have contributed to the issue, and when we understand what free will really is then we can see how determinism and free will are indeed compatible despite our intuitions that say otherwise. Thus, they don’t redefine free will but instead, as per their arguments, outline what free will really is. If you think that second definition is the right way to think of free will, then you’re not a HD at all, but are a compatibilist. And this has implications, because it isn’t clear that compatibilist free will has the same issues wrt God and morality and all sorts of other things you talk about as Hard Determinism does. Yes, we may be able to make sense of God having to leave room for free choices under a compatibilist view.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        Absolutely, which is why I have long maintained that the distinction is semantic and not about the content of the propositions or beliefs in a meaningful way.

        I think to advocate for Comp is to arbitrarily stop the web of causality at a certain point that I don’t think should be done, or presents a false understanding of the larger world. It’s trivially true, but…

        Again, the more important point is that both positions deny LFW.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I think to advocate for Comp is to arbitrarily stop the web of causality at a certain point that I don’t think should be done, or presents a false understanding of the larger world. It’s trivially true, but…

        Ultimately, though, that statement means that the distinction between the positions CAN’T be merely semantic, because what you’d be arguing is that the analysis that they are doing to support their position doesn’t work because they aren’t handling causation properly and aren’t considering what implications causation and the larger world would have, which ultimately invalidates that position. But that’s a real and meaningful distinction, not a semantic one. Your argument here is basically that they get determinism and its implications wrong and that invalidates their position. As further evidence of that, your comment here is exactly what LFWers like me charge them with as well: compatbilism only seems plausible because they are ignoring the consequences of fully determined action in the world.

        So while it seems like you’re less antagonistic towards them than you are to LFWers, you clearly don’t think their position works and so don’t think you are in any way a compatibilist, even if their definition is merely talking about desires. At best, you think that definition is saying something true, but reject the consequences they draw from that which is really the heart of their position.

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