Some compatibilists (people who define free will so that it is compatible with determinism), when asked the question of whether people “could have done otherwise” given a causally deterministic scenario (note that this discussion does not address indeterminism such as acausal or “probabilistic” events, etc. – which are equally incompatible with the free will of importance), say that “could have” or “could have done otherwise” can be used in different ways. They often address a few different contexts in order to push the important context off of the table of discourse. This post is going to address those contexts/usages and explain why there is only one context/usage that applies to the important points for the free will debate that the free will skeptic wants to make sure isn’t neglected.
For this ‘just after’ Halloween post I’ll be moving outside of reality and talk about how souls, spirits, and ghosts cannot be free will mechanisms. I bring this up because someone who had read my book liked it very much, but felt that the section on “supernaturalism” was a little thin. They felt that the book made a strong case for the materialistic account of a lack of free will, but that someone’s “soul” could support some sort of “free will” mechanism.
Straw-man fallacies are interesting because they are almost always intentional, though sometimes they can be unintentional. I tend to think, when a compatibilist (a person who thinks free will is compatible with determinism) uses a straw-man fallacy, that most of the time they don’t do them intentionally – or at least I give the compatibilist the benefit of the doubt. Rather, I think it often comes from a profound misunderstanding or assumption of the free will skeptics position.
The free will debate is almost always classified/labeled as a debate between “free will vs. determinism”. This confuses many into thinking that if determinism is incompatible with free will (which it is), people just need to show that determinism isn’t necessarily the case and automatically the possibility for free will opens up. In other words, when someone argues against free will, so many people will revert to the idea that perhaps the universe isn’t deterministic, the negation of such becoming their free will savior. The idea that indeterminism can help grant free will is, in philosophical circles, called libertarian free will (not to be confused with the economic/politic position).
It’s surprising how many people try to suggest that we could have done otherwise (sometimes abbreviated as CHDO online) in an entirely causal (deterministic) universe, when discussing the free will debate. And it’s always surprising how many people don’t recognize the contradiction of such. In my book I point this out with numerous demonstrations, but for this article I just want to get to the vegan-meat and potatoes. First let’s address what we mean by “could have done otherwise”. This statement is not an “after the fact” statement, as obviously once something has been done that is the thing that was done. We are addressing that if we were to somehow bring the moment back to before the decision or action, that such a decision or action doesn’t have to take the same path (it could lead elsewhere). So let’s get into the contradictory nature of such an idea.
According to a study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, random fluctuations in the brain’s “background electrical noise” might have a say in our decisions. An article on the ucdavis.edu website suggests that this could possibly be labeled “free will“. In other words, it opens the free will door.
Take a look at the article here:
Does ‘free will’ stem from brain noise?
The article is brief, but has some conclusions that simply do no follow from what is explained in the study. It first says this, in order to prep you for the really bad thinking to come:
“How do we behave independently of cause and effect?” said Jesse Bengson, a postdoctoral researcher at the center and first author on the paper. “This shows how arbitrary states in the brain can influence apparently voluntary decisions.”
The words “determinism” and “indeterminism” tend to cause a lots o’ confusion when they are used. That’s because, as with many words/terms, they can often be used with ambiguous meanings. This post is going to point to some of these usages and also to the common usage that’s of importance for the debate on free will.
Let’s start with determinism and look at the possible ways this has been used by others.
For many such as myself, determinism is interlinked entirely with causality. It says something about the universe and all events that ever happen within it. If every event that happens in the universe has a cause, the universe, per this definition, is said to be “deterministic”.
There are a whole lot of things that people make assumptions over that are incorrect about the lack of free will. This infographic gives just a few of some common ones. Of course there is much more than this, but hopefully this infographic will help distill some of these mistakes and non-sequiturs.
Naturalism is the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world. Many people denote that if naturalism is true (which I believe is the case) that the laws that govern the universe are what make everything happen. That everything which happens in the universe is a physical play out through time. And that means everything single thing, including our conscious thought and decision-making. That these happenings aren’t some magical exceptions to the physics of the universe. In such a natural universe, things such as “free will” just don’t make sense. If our decisions are tied to the physical processes of the universe, then we only have a say in them in so far as the physical processes output what we will say about them. In other words, what we think, feel, say, and do are all an output of how the universe is playing out (both large scale and small scale processes).
And even if we accept that some events don’t have a cause (e.g. certain interpretations of quantum mechanics), those un-caused events are just part of the physical process that we still have no control over.
Though I agree with such analysis for various reasons, I think the incoherence of free will has a much wider reach. In other words, we don’t have to accept a naturalistic worldview to understand that free will doesn’t make any sense what-so-ever.
We just need to understand that an event (something “happening”) must either have a cause (be an output of something that already exists), or not have a cause (just happen – not the output of anything in existence). These are the only two possibilities for events. Not just “naturalistic” events, but any event. A so-called “supernatural” event simply can’t escape this dichotomy.