Hard determinists, when arguing that free will is an illusion, make the case that all events, whether driven by physical forces or mental calculations are conditioned, that is, they are under the influence of prior events, whether these events originate in nature or nurture.
Let’s consider an example of determinism by nature. When one billiard ball strikes another, physical forces (the speed, mass and angle of contact) determine the subsequent movement of the impacted billiard ball. This kind of determination is so clear, its contributing factors so few and readily measured, that the outcome can be predicted, if the starting configuration and added forces are carefully measured.
Determinism by nurture (where the contributing factors are cultural) is much less predictable, partly because a huge number of variables are involved. Cultural conditioning is an incremental process that requires repetition and reinforcement and which proceeds differently in different individuals, some learning faster than others, with differences in outcome and final level achieved.
Moreover, subjects instilled with culture — as every human being is to a very high degree — have the learning capacity to absorb large amounts of transmitted cultural conditioning, as well as remembered experience and improvised habits (or routines discovered by trial-and-error) for managing and manipulating objects and events for their own survival and advantage.
Human beings differ not only by culture, but by their individualized experiences, recorded both in memory and in the habits of action, thought, and feeling which distinguish them as individuals over time, each having their own biographical accumulation of experiences and of habits developed in response to those experiences. But they carry these complex composites within them into every new encounter with experience.
The closer the conditioned response comes to stimulus-response, the more nearly predictable, measurable and observable it is a la B. F. Skinner. In other words, the smaller the role of means-ends thinking determined by cultural values, individual preferences, conventional constructs like language, or rational constructs like the operation of counting, the simpler the connections between stimulus and response, and the more readily they are observed and measured.
Psychological conditioning (whether operant or classical) observes conditioned linkages between stimulus (i.e., psychological cause) and response (i.e., psychological effect) simple and direct enough for the linkage to be both very general and easily observed. Pavlov’s pairing of a bell with feeding to produce salivation by the sound of the bell alone; a rat learning to associate pushing a lever with food rewards or electric shocks.
Cultural conditioning is much more complex and variable, whether the subject is being taught to speak a language or is raised within a religion. These are much lengthier processes, with many more episodes where incomprehension, resistance or error may prevent the desired transmission of cultural practices from occurring, or from occurring in its ideal form.
When giving causal descriptions of such processes, we have already come a long way from the clean and clear example of the billiard balls, as well as from the greater complexities of physics, chemistry, and pre-psychological biology.
The concept of a causality that is predictive loses much of its force here in practice, although it is always possible to maintain it in principle.
Consider the analogy of cultural transmission (education, essentially) to genetic transmission.
The adaptive character of biological evolution depends upon mutation. Were the transmission of genetic information always perfect, the mutations from which adaptive advances arise would never occur. This magnificently adaptive (in the long run) process depends on occasional breakdowns and slippages.
The deterministic model of science requires that these transcription errors be causally explicable, and themselves determined.
This can only mean that, while at the level of basic particles everything proceeds as it must, large, complex things compounded out of many smaller ones fail to compound in exactly the same way every time.
But then natural selection comes to the rescue as a sorting principle, sifting out the ill-adapted, and leaving only that which is so well adapted that it reproduces its lineage in a further generation.
Natural selection, too, is a causal principle, but in a somewhat different sense than, say, a force like gravity. It sifts organisms in accordance with a principle — survivability. Mutation can produce anything (without regard to any standard), but only that which meets the standard of survivability continues in its mortal lineage.
It’s not that the lower-level causes, and their deterministic outcomes have been violated; it’s just that a higher-level sorting principle has been added on top of them, requiring explanation in its own terms, not the terms of the lower-level forces to which it can be reduced (for the purposes of prediction and subsequent control rather than for higher-level explanation).
My takeaway from this analogy between genetic and cultural transmission: cultural transmission also never violates lower-level causal forces, but it adds further sifting principles, using social rewards and punishments (operant conditioning at the cultural level) to impose cultural standards.
One can say that all the old lower-level causes are still at work — and they are — but they alone do not give the final form or its explanation. The explanatory framework of cultural standards is both purposive and symbolic, and explanations of it must be referred back to these frameworks (strategic thinking, as in Machiavelli or game theory, or the Verstehen position, as in Weber, are two broad approaches one might take).
Cultures impose standards (either the culture as a whole, or some subculture within it like the scientific community or the community of professional mathematicians).
And some of these standards are very precise, and are based on rational schema which preempt individual improvisation. One such is the mathematical operation of counting which designates a unit and increments a current total of successively incremented further units, producing the set of whole numbers.
The whole numbers are operationally defined by counting. This means that the relationships between numbers are locked into place by the operation of counting.
Thus, no matematician is free to deny, for example, that a count of five can be partitioned into a count of two and a count of three. This relationship is expressed as 2 + 3 = 5, and equally by 5 – 2 = 3.
From the perspective of lower-level causation, the consensus of mathematicians about these truths is enforced throughout their education, by bad grades in earlier years to the need to maintain their professional reputation in later years.
But from another perspective, it is the rational shema itself, the one generated by the operation of counting and demonstrated by the large and growing collection of arithmetic theorems, that determines the result.
Remember our analogy. Although every individual event making up the practice of trained mathematicians can be explained by lower level causes, the systematic structure of the whole is only explained by the rational schema.
So, the choices of mathematicians (these are choices determined by mathematical truth, taken as the value mathematicians strive for), while from one perspective conditioned by typical applications of social conditioning, are at the same time determined by the purposive character of mathematical practice (i.e., aiming at the demonstrable mathematical truth).
The real world is a muddled place, full of trade-offs and compromises. Learn to deal with that, because there is no other world.
Human beings in general aren’t half of what they think they are, but they could be much better than they bother to be.
The 3rd Law of Natural Thought: every dogmatic excess produces an equal and opposite dogmatic excess. (This applies especially in politics.)
No form of knowledge spreads faster than the tactical knowledge one group uses successfully against another. (What goes around comes around.)
I sometimes think that the the self-righteous attitude of being above politics manifested by the progressive minority in the Seventies (of which I was then a part — I’m more centrist now), has been adopted by what was then the Silent Majority, now that they feel themselves to be the bypassed minority (while claiming somewhat disingenuously, majority status).
Self-righteousness is the death of democratic politics because it leaves no room for compromise and it transforms fellow-citizens with opposing views (with whom one must seek a common ground) into ideological enemies (with whom one grapples for power). If this goes too far, as a great man once said “A House divided against itself cannot stand”.
There are no easy answers. Every actual community falls short of its stated ideals, erecting a facade and turning a blind eye to its shortcomings.
Open societies come closer to honesty in this regard than closed societies controlled by a single party; but even open societies only do this by maintaining institutions independent of government, capable of critical scrutiny: the press, Academia (and other communities of expertise), an electorate empowered through fair elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law within which citizens can feel secure to speak their minds.
However, when some groups are denied some part of this, something must change. But not every needed change justifies overturning a system that works well by historical (i.e., imperfect) and comparative standards.
The other day I was taking a long walk and just avoided getting caught in a thunderstorm. I took refuge under the local park admin building canopy. While there, I used the restroom inside, where they were having some kind of community event. A woman, obviously part of the event, saw me standing there and asked: “Are you here for the…?” “No”, I replied, “I’m just an old guy with a bladder.”
There’s a technique used to motivate oneself called gamification. It essentially means turning work you have to do anyway into something like a video game in which tasks have point values and you are always aiming to raise your Highest Score. So, applied to the perpetual chore of adapting to getting old, I’m going to rechristen the process “Game of Groans” in which I put down insurrections in each of the seven kingdoms of my anatomy as they rise in rebellion against me, the true-born heir to the Groan.
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).
This debate has raged for a long time in psychology, philosophy, and elsewhere. The emerging consensus in psychology is that the two are thoroughly intertwined, and that it makes more sense to sort out these intertwinings than to argue about which one is dominant.
I will leave the assembly of empirical data to experimental psychologists. My concern here is to show why this intertwining should not surprise us.
Evolution means that organisms adapt to their environment. Because resources are limited, competitive pressures for survival speed this process of adaptation along.
Thus, evolution, driven by natural selection under competitive pressure, determines the shape and articulation of organisms (anatomy), how their parts work (physiology), and the activities of the organism directed to its own survival (behavior).
Anatomy and physiology are clearly autonomous built-in features of the organism attributable to nature.
Some behavior, especially simpler behavior triggered directly by external cues, seems to be built-in or pre-programmed, thus also attributable to nature.
But where the deployment of the built-in natural capacity or the behavior requires internal initiation beyond automatic triggering by external cues, a developmental process of learning seems necessary.
Learning is just adaptation to the environment occurring in the individual rather than in the species. Initially, at least, the same processes drive it that drive natural evolution.
In other words, traits of organisms, whether in-built or learned, serve the same purpose and are subject to the same forces as natural selection.
I see three kinds of learning: 1) experience, that is, the accidental learning the organism acquires as it blunders about in its environment, 2) nurture, directed learning provided by adults of the species, and 3) self-realization, if the individual begins to direct its own development by developing its capacities.
Nurture can be applied loosely to any of these, but applies most strictly to the middle one.
But simply having a capacity is not enough, if to use it effectively one must initiate its optimal exercise from within, even if only as a narrowing of one’s responses to stimuli as one gains experience with them.
But why would nurture be necessary? Couldn’t nature suffice? Couldn’t nature build in all necessary internal processes in correlation with external stimuli?
Simpler organisms having little or nothing in the way of a brain are determined by nature. Although they too have simple behaviors and habits, one can think of these are as directly caused by inbuilt responses to triggering stimuli. In effect, it is more evolutionarily efficient (and thus successful) in some cases to discard individuals or species whose inbuilt traits are screened out by natural selection than to evolve capacities for learning.
In short, evolution is economical, and follows the most direct route to survival open to it.
But let us not be too impressed with ourselves. A tomato has some 7,000 more genes than a human does. In that sense, our brain, complex as it is, is a short-cut.
By evolving brains, nature has off-loaded some of the complexity its genetic blueprint would otherwise have to carry onto a new process for evolving adaptive behavior, namely, the organization of individual brains through the culture passed down within a community.
Cultural evolution is far more rapid than biological evolution. Ideas can be communicated faster than bodies can be reproduced. The greater differentiation among individuals building each their own unique internal experience, the multiplicity of perspectives, the division of labor, the accumulation and easy transfer of knowledge and skills, all make culture a far faster medium for adaptation than biological genetics ever could be.
The key idea here is that natural selection responds to the whole package of the organism, including its behavior, and behavior in humans is deeply affected by cultural beliefs
Cultural beliefs replicate themselves in the medium of culture, just as genetic expressions replicate themselves in the medium of DNA. Richard Dawkins distinguishes between two kinds of replicators, genes and memes (by which he means any idea that can replicate itself through a culture). Within culture, cultural selection will determine which memes replicate themselves most successfully. (See Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene, 1989, pp. 189-201.)
Those memes will play into natural selection when they produce behaviors that raise or lower prospects of gene replication within DNA, including the behavior of communities as recorded by history and the specialized histories of scientific and economic adaptations.
Studies in the psychology of perception had established by the 50’s something interesting about perception: perception is influenced by non-perceptual factors, such as needs, motives, expectations, and beliefs.
This was eventually attributed to two nearly opposite kinds of processing of perceptual data, bottom-up and top-down (Hunt, The Story of Psychology, 2007, pp. 520-522).
Bottom-up processing, more nearly physiological, combines the lowest-level sense-data (e.g., pixels of visual data) into higher-level data (e.g., perceived objects that we recognize, react to, and may manipulate).
Top-down processing, more cognitive in nature, works from higher-level schematics, actively looking for matches within the lower-level data.
Example #1. Bruner and Postman (1949) showed 28 subjects brief glimpses of playing cards, mostly standard, but with a few not (e.g., a black eight of hearts). 27 of the 28 subjects saw only normal cards, but once the subjects were told about the abnormal cards, mistaken identifications dropped dramatically.
Example #2. Else Frenkel-Brunswik (in Bruner and Krech, 1968 :128-129) first ranked through testing a sample of children on a scale measuring ethnic prejudice, which she used as a proxy for “authoritarian personality pattern”. She then showed two sets of of gradually changing visual stimuli, pictures of a dog that gradually became a pictures of a cat, and cards in which one hue gradually became another. She found that higher “authoritarian personality” rankings correlated to greater persistence of the perception of of the original object or hue.
In short, expectations and prior commitment to schema influenced actual perception, yet not to the absolute exclusion of changes in the lower-level stimuli.
So, while, repeated perceptions of a new object-stimulus can lead to the recognition of a generalized category, once that category is either constructed from experience or introduced by culture, it starts to shape how the lower-level data are organized and categorized.
Now, I want to point out a parallel in the world of human agency.
When we approach a new task involving new skills, we initially fumble about until we begin to develop simple habits that seem to bring competence in performing the task within reach.
Habits partially automate simpler skills, while allowing us to focus on the next level of mastery. But precisely because we no longer focus on them, taking them for granted, they become top-down organizing principles that we find it difficult to break.
In other words, practical life offers the same division between bottom-up and top-down organization.
Ideally, these two processes exist in a feedback loop; we blunder about from the bottom-up, until we discover a schematic habit that works. We then rely on that, ceding some control to the habit, so that we can focus on the next level of mastery. But we must remain open to revising the habits that got us to where we are, when we notice that they are sub-optimal or even counter-productive.
Those of you acquainted with theory of knowledge will recognize this as a micro, practical parallel to the Kuhnian paradigm, a guiding mindset that is necessary to process information of any kind, yet which can also become a limit and a trap — a box that we can’t think outside of.
But there is a second parallel in human agency. For habit, as Aristotle knew, is the basis of character and ethics, the study of good character and good practice. (Our word ethics comes from the Greek ethos, whose root meaning was habit.)
For habits not only guide information processing, they also guide habitual choices. They form and develop personality and character, the social characteristics by which we operate within the society of agents.
Coming back full circle, consider how character is formed by a feedback loop between bottom-up and top-down choosing.
We “feel our way through” novel experiences and situations, developing habits and practices if they are significant or recurring experiences.
Practical habits, of both the instrumental and ethical kinds, are considered so important by human societies (including parents) that they are left to chance only by the most careless and ineffective societies.
Yet societies develop their cultural habits much as do individuals, initially bottom-up and accidental, later top-down relying on (and enforcing) cultural habits that must be, on balance, useful, if that culture is to survive in the competition for resources among cultures.
Yet all cultures will retain some practices that are not optimal (not so different from maladaptive genes in the gene pool). So, the feedback loop between traditional top-down processing and bottom-up fresh processing is crucial.
Those societies that use this ongoing feedback loop more effectively will prosper better over the long term. Both processes are essential. It’s the balance that counts.
This is an excellent post from the Science Geek, who has a knack for explaining to laymen big topics in science, using immaculately clear build-ups from the basics. He gives you just enough about the 4 fundamental forces of physics and atomic structure to understand broadly the initial expansion of the universe as it bears on an interesting feature of its current state, possible future states, and the role of the observer in our understanding of this.
It also perfectly illustrates the distinction between weak and strong forms of a thesis discussed on my Rules page, Rule II.1; while the focus of that rule is being alert to the misuse of the distinction, the Science Geek post (along with his Comments interchange with Steve Morris) shows the right way to use the distinction.
In his 1988 book ‘A Brief History of Time’ the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkins (1942-2018) stated:
‘The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. … The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.’
In this post I will talk about the view that the laws of physics, and the properties of the Universe as a whole, are somehow finely tuned to allow our existence. The term ‘anthropic principle’ was coined in 1973 by the Australian physicist Brandon Carter (1942-) to describe this viewpoint. However, these ideas had been circulating for decades beforehand.