Neil Levy on the Free Will Debate

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 6, 2010 in Free Will

Neil Levy writes:

Some more data from the philpapers.org survey have just been released.  Some conjectures which I have long held seem to be supported by the data. The free will debate is a largely US debate, it seems to me. Relatively few people are interested in the UK, and even fewer in Australia. I think that part of the explanation of this phenomenon is that the US is an outlier in religious belief. Theism is much more common in the US than in most other developed countries. Since many religious believers hold that libertarian free will is required to justify eternal damnation (or salvation), libertarianism is also more common in the US. This explains why the debate is so lively in the US; this, in turn, attracts other philosophers to it (non-theists and theists with other views).

The correlation data in the survey supports the hypothesis. Libertarianism correlates quite highly with non-physicalism about mind; physicalism about mind, on the other hand, correlates highly with atheism. More directly, libertarianism also correlates quite highly with theism.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Silver Bullet December 6, 2010 at 10:06 am

Makes sense that belief in the big God in the sky is correlated with belief in the little god of the soul.

I think Sam Harris does a nice job in his new book, The Moral Landscape, of debunking libertarian free will.

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g December 6, 2010 at 11:03 am

I think Levy misdiagnoses the connection between theism and (free-will) libertarianism. I think theists tend to be libertarians because they think free will solves (or at least might solve) the problem of evil, and only libertarian free will has the least prospect of doing that.

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Thomas December 6, 2010 at 11:08 am

“I think Sam Harris does a nice job in his new book, The Moral Landscape, of debunking libertarian free will.”

Lol. Sam Harris “debunks” a major philosophical position. Right…

Can´t see how this is surprising. Naturalists tend to be physicalists and determinists, while theists usually are dualists and libertarians. The real question should be who is right, not why someone holds a position he does.

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Thomas December 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

“I think theists tend to be libertarians because they think free will solves (or at least might solve) the problem of evil, and only libertarian free will has the least prospect of doing that. ”

No no… I agree with Stewart Goetz in that theists and also most people in the world think that they have free will in the incompatibilist sense, because this is actually what our immediate experience tells us. It is obvious to us that we really have free will. Even some honest naturalists, like John Searle, admit this. So most people are libertarians because this is pretty obvious to us in our everyday experience, not because “positing” free will solves some philosophical problem.

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g December 6, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Thomas, of course many people believe in libertarian free will just because it feels like we have it. But it feels equally that way to theists and atheists, so far as I know. The point is that there is a *difference*, statistically, between theists and atheists when it comes to belief in libertarian free will, and you can’t explain that by appealing to anything that’s equally true of both groups.

Levy has one hypothesis about why theism versus atheism correlates with libertarianism versus not-libertarianism. I have another. Perhaps the actual explanation is something else entirely. But it can’t be “immediate experience” unless theists and atheists have, or at least tend to have, relevantly different immediate experience.

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g December 6, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Oh, and yes of course whether something is right generally matters more than why people believe it (or don’t), but that doesn’t mean that only the first question is legitimate.

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Jacopo December 6, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Does it really feel like we have free will?

Sit back for a second, and freely choose your next thought.

What’ll happen is a thought will arise and pass away. Observed closely, all conscious experience amounts to an arising and passing away, not the actions of some kind of radically individual, separate, libertarian agent. That’s one solid, but counter-intuitive, observation that millennia of contemplative traditions (especially some forms of Buddhism) has found out. Not that many Western philosophers seem to take this observation seriously, but if you doubt it, spend a decent amount of time meditating under the guidance of a good instructor, and see for yourself.

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Thomas December 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm

g,

yes you´re right in that theists and atheists probably have the same experience, but I disagree when you say that “you can’t explain that by appealing to anything that’s equally true of both groups”. I think you can. Here´s why. Both theists and atheists start from the same immediate experience. Theists then, go on believing in their experience, because it ‘fits’ neatly into their general worldview. Libertarian free will is very natural in theistic-dualistic context. But atheists, on the other hand, are usually naturalists and therefore physicalists about human consciousness. Now as naturalists are happy to concede, belief in libertarian free will does not cohere well in naturalistic-physicalist context. Therefore atheists have a defeater for their initial belief based on experience.

I think that the fact that theism can ground our experience that we have free will is a major strenght of theism. I suggest that theism has considerable explanatory power when in comes to explaining human consciousness, free will and experience.

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Thomas December 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Jacopo,

it is helpful to make a distinction between ‘being a mental agent’ and ‘being a mental patient’. When you are the latter, passive mental events, like thoughts and desires will just arise and pass away, like you said. But you can´t explain human agency just by passive mental events. When you are a mental agent, you exercise your active power to choose. So choices are active, not passive events. And I am brave enough to assert that we all have a strong experience that our choices are really free – desires and beliefs surely influence our choices, but they do not determine them.

Libertarians are not claiming that all of our mental events are free. But our choices are. Raise your hand in the air and ask yourself if that really was a free decision. To me it´s utterly amazing that someone can believe that it wasn´t.

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Adito December 6, 2010 at 1:39 pm

the fact that theism can ground our experience that we have free will is a major strenght of theism. I suggest that theism has considerable explanatory power when in comes to explaining human consciousness, free will and experience

This would be true if our intuitions about things like experiences tended to be true. Unfortunately the earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around us. We have to go outside our ordinary intuitions about things to get at the truth about pretty much everything and free will is no exception. All theism is doing here is perpetuating a misconception.

Raise your hand in the air and ask yourself if that really was a free decision. To me it´s utterly amazing that someone can believe that it wasn´t.

*raises hand,* now lets examine what just happened. I read “raise your hand” and lets assume that I wanted to make a libertarian free choice to raise my hand. I raise my hand. Have I made a libertarian free choice? It looks like I had a desire as well as a belief about how I could satisfy the desire and so I acted. There’s no need to add anything else into the causal chain that lead to me raising my hand other than my desires and beliefs. What’s missing?

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Thomas December 6, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Adito,

what is missing is that in your story there is only passive, automatic event causation at work. Human agency and rationality needs active, agent causation. How can one really choose a instead of b based on reasons and deliberation if the only kind of causation behind one´s choice is passive, automatic event causation?

Angus Menuge has a useful paper on this here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1701569/LibertarianFreeWillAndTheArgumentFromReason-SpokenVersion.pdf

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Luke Muehlhauser December 6, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Thomas,

Ain’t Dropbox great? :)

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Patrick December 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

As someone who just finished reading The Case For a Creator, I have to say that I really, really, REALLY do not think that the consideration of complex philosophical and theological issues explains most people’s conclusions on subjects like free will.

Did you know that those books argue for dualism by noting that a person with an electrode in their brain stimulating their motor nerves doesn’t feel like *they* are the ones moving their limbs? Seriously.

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g December 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Thomas, now we’ve got three theories for why theist and atheist philosophers might tend to hold different views on libertarian free will. It’s not clear to me how we can decide between them.

Patrick, note that the survey we’re discussing here is of professional philosophers. They are not “most people”.

Thomas again, many people who don’t believe in libertarian free will none the less believe that our choices are free. They just understand “free” in a different way. I don’t see any reason to think that our intuition that we choose freely is strong evidence for libertarian as opposed to non-libertarian free will; and why should we trust our intuition on a metaphysical question like that anyway?

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Patrick December 6, 2010 at 5:33 pm

g- The people interviewed in The Case for [X] books are also professional philosophers.

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Adito December 6, 2010 at 9:48 pm

“in your story there is only passive, automatic event causation at work. Human agency and rationality needs active, agent causation. How can one really choose a instead of b based on reasons and deliberation if the only kind of causation behind one´s choice is passive, automatic event causation?”

Human agency needs no such thing. A choice is simply the outcome of all the deliberative processes that a human goes through based on his beliefs and desires. One chooses a over b because the deliberative processes show it(truly or not) to be a better fit with ones beliefs and desires. All of this is fully “determined” in that we couldn’t have done otherwise but everything we are goes into the decision so it can still be called wholly ours (and therefore free in a sense). Think about what kinds of choices we would make if they were not guided by beliefs and desires. They would be totally random and incomprehensible.

If “could have done otherwise” is something you refuse to exclude from your idea of free will then all I can say is that it’s simply false. There is no evidence that humans act in such a way that they could have done otherwise.

I read about half that paper (and I plan to finish it) and so far I’ve been unimpressed with his reasoning. There are very simple Humean stories we can tell that explain all of his examples. I’ll get into them if you like but this post is already getting long.

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g December 7, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Patrick, I weep for humanity.

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woodchuck64 December 7, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Thomas,

Angus Menuge has a useful paper on this here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1701569/LibertarianFreeWillAndTheArgumentFromReason-SpokenVersion.pdf

Was this published in a mainstream philosophical journal or was it presented to an Evangelical conference? Reason I ask is because I’m wondering if arguments like these are actually reaching their strongest opponents or if they’re just dissipating in Christian-apologetics echo chambers.

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Jim Ashby June 24, 2011 at 1:08 am

The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means. Free will is not all it’s cracked up to be but there’s no doubt we have a modest form of it. I prefer to call it “self-determinism”. This self-determinism is empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I’ve found this is hard to explain because so many people assume that any free will must contradict causality and, thus, determinism. I claim that the only free will we have is actually self-determinism and that it isn’t in conflict with causality: in fact, it’s a product of human intelligence interacting with causality. I’ll try to explain . . .

I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our heredity and experience (which are both products of causality). Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

Experience represents the past. Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know. With the exception of instinct and reflex, I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act beyond our experience. Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present. This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of consciousness: our identity. Experience influences us so much because it’s been layered into our identity just as the present will be. THAT is the self in self-determinism.

Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules. We might think we’re in control until that fire or disease or earthquake or tsunami or accident or economic crash changes our lives. Causality is the ultimate big dog. We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure. We can’t anticipate everything.

So how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)? How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?

Feedback.

Mental feedback is the key. Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans. Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it. Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback. Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly. THAT is the determinism in self-determinism.

It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled, libertarian, free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of independent agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future. We’re so good at it, we’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . merely expressions of it.

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Kurt Forrer September 10, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Jacopo gets closest to something like ‘proof’ with his remark that we cannot choose our thoughts, so our acts may be forced on us in the same way. Here is my aphorism on this question: “Dreams and sleep are an integral part of our being. Since they are fully automated, why should the waking phase be different?”

My second aphorism in this matter is: “Consciousness is the sine qua non of existence. It means that anything we think or do is subservient to consciousness. Having no control over consciousness, where is our control over thoughts and deeds?”

But if you are really interested in the strongest substantiation that we have no choice, please read my essay on the Web: “The Cinderella of Science”. There I show that Michael Barnsley’s recurring nightmare posed him a problem which he could not solve since he really didn’t understand the set-up he regularly faced on these nights. And since nightmares don’t go away until they are understood, he only learnt what the problem was 20 (twenty!) years later when he came across Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal maths. After this Barnsley had a dream that showed him the solution to the problem posed by the interminable nightmare. And with that solution he could go to inventing his software of image compression.

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