Note: this is a longer read than the typical post, about double that size.
Free will is best thought of, not as a violation of causal processes or an exemption from them, but as an arrangement within causal processes from which new capacities emerge, capacities that breach the limits of pre-conscious causal processes — those in which the cause occasions its effect solely in terms of forces in play immediately at the point of contact, oblivious to wider concerns or longer-term factors.
Free will as we know it is found most clearly in human beings. It involves the awareness of possibilities (Daniel Dennett’s “degrees of freedom”) within the power of the agent to realize, no matter how wide the scope or how long the term of the expected benefit.
Free will is a special kind of will, one that involves deliberation, which is the conscious consideration of possibilities.
Wills aim at some benefit, whether to an individual (self-interest), to a group (altruism), or to a virtual group (universality, that is, a will benefiting equally anyone who meets a threshold requirement that is not morally arbitrary). The initial, and enduring self-interest of any organism (which alone wills things) is survival, but in a social and cultural species self-interest can expand to include: 1) first, the self-interest of the group which supports the survival of its members, and 2) second, presenting a character in one’s actions aligned with a self-image encouraged by either the group or the individual.
This second expansion of self-interest accounts for those who sacrifice their own survival to act as a good Christian or a good Roman. These are still interests in which the agent has a stake, but they go beyond the simple survival of the individual.
So, there are only three possible beneficiaries of a will: the self, the physical group to which the self belongs, or the virtual group to which the self belongs (some version of an Enlightenment universal, say, human beings, understood by definition as bearers of rights).
Free will aims at benefits selected from a range of possible outcomes and from a range of possible benefits. This introduces longer terms and wider considerations, both of which require sustained deliberation rather than impulse or instinct
Even if one only aims at survival, one can choose short-term risks to increase one’s long-term chances of survival. But as different kinds of benefits are considered alongside survival, deliberations become more complicated and such beings find themselves choosing within wider parameters and facing all kinds of trade-offs.
Yet free will does not happen outside of causal processes, but rather in spite of them. That is the core of compatibilism (the view that, when understood properly, free will and determinism are compatible). Free will comes into being when causal processes are arranged in such a way as to make possible the deliberate consideration of possibilities that the agent can initiate, as it considers the comparative benefits of different courses of actions.
But before that can happen, there must exist pre-conscious systems in which organic homeostasis occurs, that is, organisms in which system-wide equilibria are sustained by causal processes whose workings are determined by the blindly mechanical action of immediate causes on their immediate effects.
In other words, it is as if a machine were engineered with a purpose in mind, except that the engineer is blind causation, randomized over immense lengths of time. Evolution casts up mutations that mostly fail to produce a viable machine. But when, at long last, a viable machine is accidentally produced, the parts work together within a system that functions to a recognizable end. And organisms go a step farther than machines in that they are provisionally self-maintaining for the lifetime of the organism.
The most critical organ for free will is the brain, which, in order to enhance the prospects of survival, develops ever more in the direction of processing information about the organism’s environment and internally projecting imagined scenarios of action in order to safely test their viability before committing to them. This was at first purely a matter of perceptions of prey and predators and the instinctive emotions fueling the pursuit of prey (desire) and the flight from predators (fear).
As the brain increased its powers of inference, anticipation, and deduction, calculation began first to serve the driving emotions and passions (a` la David Hume) and then to begin to control, organize, and discipline those emotions to serve a desired self-image or character, that is, a honed ability to function as needed to achieve the agent’s chosen benefits. Early on, that meant the cultivation of the virtue of the gatherer, the hunter, the warrior, and the leader.
The cultivation of astuteness (prudence in the amoral sense) is the system-maintaining highest order that serves self-interest and survival. Machiavelli demonstrates the scope and limits of this in his two great works, The Prince, on how this works in principalities, and The Discourses on Livy, on how this works in republics.
The cultivation of moral virtue (prudence in the moral sense, now more commonly called probity or practical judgment) is the system-maintaining highest order that serves those final ends or values that go beyond mere self-interest, culminating in altruistic ends.
Free will, then, means an arrangement of causal processes that escapes the limitations of inorganic causality — that it is conditioned by immediate causes, and thus blind to distant consequences; it does this by enlarging the conditions of action to include considerations that go beyond the impulses of the moment, the interest of the isolated self, and the attainment of material benefits — beyond all that to the attainment of exemplary kinds of character, that is, to the perfection of the self (according to some code or standard) rather than its mere gratification.
Will: Absolutely Free or Absolutely Conditioned?
The notion of absolute free will, metaphysical free will, or libertarian free will, is misleading. To face choices free of all conditioning would be to face them without any formed character or any awareness or experience of consequences. Such freedom would be meaningless because it is stripped of the context that gives it meaning. It would be the freedom to act randomly and without purpose. That describes the condition of infancy or mental breakdown, not the condition of a fully-functioning moral agent.
I am suggesting that the concept of absolute free will slips free of the real-world context in which alone it makes any sense.
Aristotle discusses a similar slippage from context in those who ascribe actions to god (as Aristotle understood god, the prime mover). Aristotle’s prime mover was perfect and complete, and as such had no need of action, for action is a necessity only for imperfect beings, who have needs and desires arising from their incompleteness.
I argue that both Aristotle’s complete god and absolute free will’s unconditioned willing are limiting cases, that is, reference points outside the range of meaningful free will, that serve only to define the limits of the concept, but do not define the concept itself.
Thus, free will concerns the choice of appropriate ends and of a suitable organization of the self (created by good actions leading to good character) rather than the creation by fiat of possibilities that did not exist previously.
Habit is both a help and a hindrance to free will. Experience allows us to build our astuteness and technical abilities (instrumental capacities) and our probity (moral capacity). In both cases we enlarge our capacities by developing suitable habits, by discovering useful routines and, by making them routine, reserving our active deliberation for special cases, borderline cases, and the careful weighing of the highest-ranking ends, when trade-offs among them are necessary.
But a habit is a purposeful rut, and when the rut has become obsolete or counterproductive, it is hard to break (for the same reasons it made choices easier when it served our purposes).
To act without being subject to any conditions would be to act without purposes, experience, abilities, or character. It would mean being reduced to the state of a helpless and dependent infant.
One of the problems with lengthy linear arguments within established traditions (orthodoxies) is that such habits of thought crowd out the real-world context which alone gives the topic its real meaning.
Advocates of absolute free will model their idea of will on a context-free ideal that is impossible and that would be without meaning or value if it could exist.
They also ignore that agents undergo an organic process of maturation. If free will is anything, it’s a capacity. Agents begin as infants lacking even the capacities necessary to survive. Maturation is the organic processes of acquiring abilities through nature and nurture, and a a third kind of conditioning, experience (sometimes included under nurture). Free will, like any other skill-based or knowledge-based capacity, can only be acquired through some combination of these kinds of conditioning.
By contrast, hard determinists disregard that, as agents, we act on our own agency, selecting from among ends available to us, but starting from pre-existing limits.
Agency as a Self-Correcting Condition
Agency should work much as Karl Popper says science should.
Both activities are neverending and perpetually incomplete.
Both are prone to error and false or premature certainty, but both are capable of self-correction.
Both work within the limits of their current assumptions (i.e., beliefs, paradigms), of their methods for comparing alternatives and hypotheses, of their technical capacities, and of their current store of process-tested tentative knowledge.
And, crucially, both have the capacity to review and reconsider every previous choice using new data, new considerations, and new and different minds, if necessary.
Instead of defining free will in terms of an idealized, absolutely unconditioned and context-free concept (of dubious applicability), modeled on the fiat creation capacity of the biblical God, free will should be defined comparatively, in terms of the more limited capacities that precede it in its development.
These include the inorganic cause operating immediately on the object it affects, the organic homeostatic cause operating to maintain a self-regulating system (i.e, an organism), a sentient system of desired opportunities and feared threats, typically mediated by pleasure and pain (i.e., a personal character formed within a culture and its enforcing institutions), a self-conscious system that calculates self-interest, and, finally, a self-conscious system that both calculates self-interest and also recognizes values beyond self-interest (in the simplest sense) and evaluates opportunities and threats in terms of those values.
Science can describe the causalities involved in these processes up through calculations of self-interest (for such things as survival , health, wealth, status, and power can be observed and measured, bringing them within the scope of science).
But science stops short at values (distinguishing them as value-judgments, distinct from the empirical statements that can be made about observable facts) since they are not precisely measurable. Values as well come in different kinds which are not measurable by a common measure (i.e., they are incommensurable, apples and oranges), and thus can only be balanced in a painful kind of value-judgment known as a trade-off (a characteristic focus of economic evaluations and moral dilemmas).