Before I post on other issues, I’d like to try once more to lay out my story about what I take to be a central part of the free will debate, in part because I feel like previous posts got sidetracked a bit by my suggestions that it was the central part. I hope some new people will jump into the discussion, and I’d love to hear more about what people think of the ideas (regardless of whether they think it contributes in any interesting ways to some of the more traditional debates). [The numbers belo are not meant to indicate that I’ve tried to formulate this in a valid argument form; consider this a Story.]
1. Suppose that people think it is essential to free will (and being responsible) that one’s actions be suitably produced by (or traceable to) mental states and processes that people associate with their selves (e.g., their endorsed reasons, their character traits, their deliberations, their conscious desires, etc.). [This seems a plausible assumption, tweaked as necessary, on many compatibilist and incompatibilist theories, right?]
2. If so, then people will think an agent lacks free will and responsibility regarding action A if the relevant mental states and processes do not suitably produce her actions (i.e., if they see the self as being ‘bypassed’).
3. (a) Some people will have minimal theoretical or explicit beliefs about the metaphysical nature of the self or of mental states or of the underlying causal processes that connect them with each other and with events in the world. These people are ‘theory-lite’.
(b) Some people will have a dualist theory and corresponding beliefs about these metaphysical issues, perhaps because of their religion or culture (and they will express such beliefs if asked about them).
[There are other possibilities, of course, including people who have theoretical beliefs but are not very ‘theory-committed’ either, so they would easily revise their metaphysical theories and explicit beliefs to adopt better theories.]
4. Crucially, NO ONE yet has a metaphysical or scientific theory that adequately explains how our selves and our mental states and processes are physically embodied (and part of the law-governed natural world). Philosophers have their physicalist and functionalist theories, but these still face philosophical objections and they have not been ‘filled out’ by a scientific theory of mind (of course, dualist theories are objectionable too and don’t adequately explain what needs explaining). [The best theory may end up being eliminativist about mental concepts or require dualism of some sort, etc. But let’s not get carried away too soon!]
5. Suppose people are told either (D) that all behavior can (in principle) be completely explained (and is completely caused) in accord with natural (or physical) laws and prior physical states, which is a standard way of introducing determinism to novices, or (S) that all behavior is in fact already being completely explained by science (and is completely caused by processes studied by sciences, including genetics, neurobiology, psychology, etc.).
[I think it’s fair to say that D and S are often presented as the same thesis to novices and in public discussions of these issues. Note, for instance, the opening of Barbara Fried’s discussion: “our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements—everything we conventionally think of as “us”—are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance. The study of the brain is in its infancy; as it advances, the evidence for determinism will surely grow.”]
6. Because of 4, when people are told D or S, it is relatively easy to conclude bypassing (i.e., 2). Why? Because D and S are typically presented with little to no reference to the causal contribution of the self or the relevant mental states and processes. Since we don’t understand how these things are physically instantiated (and sometimes have folk theories that say they are not), and since D typically focuses on physical laws and states, and S explicitly does so, we naturally conclude that there’s no causal (or explanatory) work left for the self or mental processes. In general, if F is not yet understood in terms of G, and G is presented as completely explaining (or causing) X, then it is easy to conclude that F is not important in explaining X. [Another way to reach the same sort of conclusion draws on the research that suggests people understand and explain events in either teleological (causal) terms or mechanistic (causal) terms and the two can compete. So, when primed to think in mechanistic terms, we see it as competing with teleological explanations. Yet, this psychological fact about us does not entail that we are tracking a metaphysical difference nor that we won’t come to understand how the two explanations are united with a viable theory of mind, much as educated people now understand how the teleological features of biology can be reconciled with mechanistic explanations.]
7. So, people are likely to understand D and S as undermining free will and moral responsibility.
If this story is on the right track, then:
Some people indeed have agent-causal intuitions and theories (our selves have to play a causal role in our actions), but their intuition that D (or S) is inconsistent with free will would still be driven by a sort of bypassing intuition. This seems to be the story suggested by Knobe and by Nichols and Rose. But:
Determinism vs. indeterminism is not the relevant issue. The worries raised in 5 by D and S could be presented in just as threatening a way using indeterministic laws. The issue is whether the self and relevant mental states play the right causal role in action. Indeterminism is helpful on this sort of agent-causal theory if it opens up some causal space for non-physical selves or mental states to play a role (Dylan made this point). But if such a causal role can be offered by a plausible theory of mind (what 4 says we don’t yet have)—presumably some sort of non-reductive physicalist theory—then the indeterminism is unnecessary to allow such a causal role for the self. By blocking the bypassing worry, we need not bring in indeterminism. (I think it is relevant to this point that there are agent-causal theories that are deterministic, by Markosian and by Nelkin, and that skeptics, including G. Strawson, Pereboom, and Levy, do not think indeterminism helps secure free will or responsibility.)
However, I EMPHASIZE that this story does not address incompatibilists and their arguments when they focus solely on the alternatives for which they think indeterminism is necessary (and I’d have to think more about how the story might be spun to account for some of the intuitions and arguments focused on sourcehood).
Nonetheless, I SPECULATE that this story accounts for the intuitions that lead some people to embrace incompatibilism (note that on this story, if one begins with either nebulous or explicit agent-causal intuitions, then it is unclear whether one finds D threatening because of its challenge to leeway or sourcehood or, instead, because of the challenge to a causal role for agents and their mental states). [There is also psychological work that suggests we often discount earlier causes if we focus on later causes and discount later causes by focusing on earlier causes—most presentations of D certainly emphasize complete causal explanation in terms of earlier causes, such as the state of the universe in the distant past, perhaps leading to an intuitive discounting of later causes, such as the agent’s deliberations.]
And I feel confident that this sort of story accounts for many ordinary people’s intuitions about free will and threats to it and accounts for most of the scientists’ claims that free will is an illusion, which typically move from a presentation of S to a conclusion about bypassing.
Finally, I think this story suggests a “Pathway to Freedom” to address many of the concerns people have about free will (including the concerns that willusionists present). That pathway will depend on how things go regarding 4—the theory that explains how to reconcile the mind and the physical world, the manifest image and the scientific image. Sellars concludes: “by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living.” Put simply, if we solve the mind-body problem (in a certain way that does not undermine the role of intentions and purposes), then we will solve what I take to be the most significant free will problem (in the sense of leading many people to stop seeing D or S as a problem).
(Again, I’m not trying to suggest this pathway would address every concern raised by incompatibilists nor taking it as a “proof” that people would be right to stop seeing a problem with determinism, properly understood, since there are other potential problems regarding alternatives, constitutive luck, etc., though I myself think people would be right, at least once we compatibilists dispatch the lingering arguments that make no appeal whatsoever to such bypassing concerns ;-)
The experiments using the brain-scan scenario described in my last post are meant to provide both evidence for this story and for this pathway towards relieving some of the threats to free will and responsibility. Whether people are reading the possibility of such prediction by brain activity in a theory-lite way (3a) or a way that tries to maintain dualist or agent-causal intuitions (3b), the reason most people think it is consistent with free will and responsibility is, we believe, that they are not reading ‘bypassing’ into the scenario (for non-manipulated decisions). The scenario is itself ‘theory-lite’ about how the brain activity that predicts, and seemingly subserves, the mental activity (most people agreed that the scenario entails that brain activity causes each decision). It cannot provide the satisfying non-dualist theory we still lack (4), but it can suggest how things might look if we had it. As my 8-year old Sam said when I explained the scenario to him (in simpler terms), “Well, it’d still be my decision.”