We Don’t Have Free Will. We Have Something Better.
Over the years I’ve argued at some length that determinism and freewill are both true — a position called compatibilism.
Two major objections have been raised:
- Determinism precludes free will by definition
- My definition of ‘freewill’ is unacceptable
Let me not go into the merits of these objections here, but rather take ‘a path of least resistance’ — let me rather posit here that (modern) determinism is true, and that we do not have free will.
My two perspectives (there is, and there isn’t free will) are actually perfectly compatible, hinging only on the definition of free will.
A quick word about here about the possibility of probabilistic indeterminism rescuing traditional free will: If chance is the only factor allowing for our ‘free’ choices, then those choices are really random, and not free.
If we have no free will, then what capacity or ability do we have that is ‘better’?
The ability that I’m referring to shares some properties with what is usually meant by ‘volition’, but it is definitely not the same. It is, however, key to human affairs and flourishing, and demands its own explicit concept and name. For now I’ll call it ‘self-aware, conceptual reasoning’, or SCR for short.
Now while I’ll admit that this essay’s title was designed be noticed, there is an important sense in which it is justified — the concept of free will is not viable. In short: Free will is typically defined as choices not caused by, or free from, antecedent causes. SCR, on the other hand, specifically relies on antecedents. Our choices are made based on reasons — which seems like a significant improvement.
Free will as described above is not consistent with what we now know about the brain, evolution and consciousness, or science in general.
In order to properly understand SCR (or any other concept for that matter) one needs to ask: What facts of reality give rise to this concept? Why do we need it? What does it allow us to distinguish?
Several facts of reality give rise to SCR and related concepts:
- Firstly, the compelling sense of agency that we experience. Introspection gives us (some) access to our thought and decision processes. Ultimately how accurately our experience reflects what is actually going on (i.e. how much of our decisions are products of our subconscious, and how much is after-the-fact ‘rationalization’) doesn’t really matter here. Fact is that we have this experience, and we give it a name.
- Secondly, thoughts and ideas do originate in individuals. Clearly, all of our cognition is based on prior experience and learning, habits, and current context, however creative, novel, or unusual our current conclusions or choices may be. However, this does not negate the fact that any given idea first formed in our heads, was given birth to, or originated within us.
- Thirdly, there are are actions or choices that we perform involuntarily (reflex reaction, sleepwalking, subconscious) or under duress (‘gun to the head’). It is useful to distinguish those from the more normal, deliberate, voluntary choices that we make — the ones we call ‘free’.
As important as the above factors are, the key reason for wanting a concept of ‘self-aware conceptual reasoning’ is the ability to claim personal credit, and to assign personal responsibility.
This requirement is not esoteric or just of academic interest, but affects our everyday lives: Did she write that essay? Who thought of that? Is he guilty of murder? The concept of ‘self-aware conceptual reasoning’ is central to morality and law, plus many other aspects of human relationships.
The purpose of any concept is to identify, isolate, and abstract some important recurring aspects or patterns of reality. Once identified and formed, a concept via its symbol (its name or word) allows us to efficiently reference and communicate that particular aspect of reality.
For example, in early childhood we repeatedly come across dogs, and thus form the ‘dog’ concept. Later on, we experience and identify instances of of people not speaking the truth, and we abstract ‘dishonesty’.
A crucial feature of concepts is their ability to distinguish one thing from another: a dog from a cat, honesty from dishonesty.
‘Self-aware conceptual reasoning’ distinguishes this uniquely human ability from potentially similar and confusing cognition in other primates or animals.
The major differences lie along three unique but related axes:
- Human self-awareness not only integrates the bodily self (as all higher animals do to some degree), but also our mental self. We are aware of our ability to think and reason.
- Humans are able to form higher level concepts, not just perceptually-bound generalizations such as a dog’s ‘food bowl’, ‘ball’ and ‘newspaper’. We can create concepts from concepts, ultimately capturing highly abstract notions such as ‘justice’, ‘morality’, and ‘free will’.
- Our ability to think and reason abstractly. Among other things, this allows us both to foresee the (obvious) consequences of our actions, and to know that we have agency — that in some important sense we are causal agents.
The combined effect of these three advanced abilities significantly separate us from all other animals. It blesses us with the optional freedom to choose intelligently. That’s what I call SCR, and that is what gives us moral agency.
Let me end on an (even more) controversial note: The points presented here, plus my views on advanced AI, lead to the conclusion that future machines that are self-aware and can think conceptually will also have moral agency.