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Free Will – a partial agreement with Sapolsky

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In his new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, Robert Sapolsky takes the position that we do not have free will.  Though I haven’t yet had a chance to read his book, I agree with his thesis. He also takes the position that our lack of free will means we are mistaken about moral responsibility. In this discussion, I’ll be working from my knowledge of the general landscape of the debate as well as this piece from the New York Times that includes responses from Sapolsky.

What is Free Will?

The Classical view of free will is that there is a point in our decisions where we have the power to choose one of (at least) two paths.  Nothing prior to our choice forces us to choose one or the other path.  No matter how much we are inclined toward one path, we have the real capability to choose the other.  We make our choices based on reasons, but those reasons do not fully determine our choice.  Despite all prior events, despite all our reasons, we could choose otherwise than we actually do.  Although moral responsibility is not part of the classical view, it is common to hold that we are morally responsible for just those actions we freely choose.

The Compatibilist view of free will starts from the observation that there are some actions we take ourselves to be morally responsible for and others that we do not.  The difference in these two groups seems to be the degree to which our choices are “our own” in some meaningful sense, the degree to which they stem from inside us rather than outside us. For the compatibilist, at least those of a certain stripe, free will is whatever accounts for the difference between actions for which we are morally responsible and those for which we are not. “Free” actions are those for which we are morally responsible, they are those which stem from inside us rather than outside us.  

It is important to note the difference in direction here.  Proponents of the classical view start with a definition of free will and then move to a view about morality.  Compatibilists start with a view about morality and then move to an admittedly vague definition of free will. For now, just hold that idea, we’ll come back to it later.

Against Classical Free Will

All actions are physical events. If I inspect the chain of events that results in, say, taking a sip of coffee, all I find are physical events that are fully caused by prior physical events. My hand moved because my muscles contracted because a signal traveled down my nerve because neurotransmitters were present in a synapse, and so forth. So, if my will is in that chain, either it is itself a physical event, or it somehow can cause physical events without being one.

If my will is a physical event, then it is unclear in what sense it can be free.  Physical events seem to be fully determined by other physical events, or, in the case of some quantum phenomenon, are random.  But neither fully determined nor random events are free in the sense of classical free will. 

If my will is not a physical event, then there seems no path for it to cause physical events.  Events that are fully determined cannot be impacted by non-physical events, that would violate the idea that they are fully determined.  Events that are random cannot be determined by anything as that would mean they aren’t random.  So a non-physical free will requires that some physical process be neither deterministic nor random.  Since random just means “indeterminate” or something very close to it, there doesn’t seem to be any room for free will to exist.

Now I don’t pretend that there aren’t philosophical nits to pick with the above.  Any decent philosopher can find something in the statement of the argument to use as leverage.  Still, I think the argument is strong.  Unless we are willing to countenance some form of “magic” in our daily lives, classical free will doesn’t exist.  (It’s worth noting that many people do believe in magic.  If you believe you have a spirit that animates your body, and that your body moves only at the direction or acquiescence of your spirit, then you believe in this type of magic.)

Sapolsky’s argument is something like the above.  Classical free will is incompatible with what we know of physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience. There simply is no room for free will in the whirlwind of physical processes that we are.

What’s Left of Will?

Insofar as we have a will, it isn’t free.  Still, there are actions that we intend, that we do deliberately, that we will.  And there are others that we do unintentionally, without trying, that we don’t will.  Baking someone a pie to cheer them up is an example of the former.  Slipping on ice and smashing the pie while delivering it is an example of the latter.  Whatever the nature of our will, it is part of our subjective experience that we will some actions and not others. Perhaps our subjective experience has no causal impact on the world, but we nonetheless have the experience for some actions and not for others.

About Morality

Remember that compatibilists start with intuitions about morality.  Let’s do that now.  Consider the following scenario:

You are driving along and see that the car in front of you has a bumper sticker that you find extraordinarily offensive.  As they stop at a red light, you purposely slam your car into theirs without slowing down, injuring them and totaling their car.

Are you morally responsible for the harm?  I think our intuitions say you are.  There isn’t even a lot of doubt here.  Now let’s change the scenario a bit.

Everything is the same except that shortly after you became offended, your car suffered a complete brake failure.  You didn’t know about the failure.  You didn’t try to use your brakes.  But even if you had tried to slow down, you wouldn’t have been able to.

Are you still morally responsible for the harm?  It’s hard to see how an unknown brake failure gives you any moral cover.  It’s true that you could not have stopped even if you had tried.  However, it’s more important that you would not have stopped even if you could have.

It’s not that hard to generate examples like this.  Although we might morally excuse someone by saying “You couldn’t have prevented it.”  What we really mean is more like, “You would have prevented it if you could.”

Tying It All Together

The lack of free will means that it’s never really true that we could have done otherwise.  Our actions are due to chains of physical causes that we cannot step outside of to control.  Nevertheless, it makes sense to speak of some of our actions as willed or intentional based on characteristics of our subjective experience.  Moral responsibility does not require that we actually be able to do otherwise.  It only requires that an action be willed and that we would have done otherwise if we could have.

Sapolsky can reasonably respond here that if determinism is true, then we always have only one possible course of action.  So it is always true that we would do otherwise if we could.  However, this simply expands the scope of moral responsibility to those actions which we will.  That’s not so very far from where most compatibilists would like to see it.

As humans, we are physical beings subject to physical laws.  Those laws have no room for non-physical causes.  If such causes exist, they fly in the face of our best attempts at understanding.  But despite being physical beings, we have subjective experience.  The experience does not itself act as a cause for physical events, but it allows us to group and categorize events based on our experience.  We categorize events as willed or unwilled, moral or immoral.  These categories can make sense even if they are emergent from the physical world rather than part of it.

Lisa Jo Rudy
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I’m not sure I understand this argument.  It seems to me that you’re comparing accidents to choices, and saying that we lose free will when things happen by accident. But in fact the distinction isn’t between accidents and choices but between free will choices and choices that are made through compulsion.  Accidents don’t really figure into this kind of debate. 

A classic Christian example is the story of Judas in the New Testament. Did Judas have the option of NOT betraying Christ?  Or was he compelled by God to take the action that would lead to Christ’s self-sacrifice and the redemption of all humanity?  If Judas had free will, then damnation is appropriate. But if not — should he be held accountable for his actions?

Personally, I believe in free will — which in theory would justify Judas’s damnation.

But getting back to your argument, it seems obvious to me that any intentional action is the result of free choice which comes BEFORE any physical action. The antecedent to taking a sip of coffee is the purely mental choice to TAKE a sip of coffee.  And prior to that is the purely mental choice of coffee (versus tea or hot chocolate, for example), the choice to make or buy the coffee, and the choice to actually drink the coffee.  In all of these cases we are exercising free will: we could have decided to forgo a hot drink, choose a different hot drink, etc. etc.  And if I throw my hot coffee in someone’s face, while the throwing is a physical action, of course I am exercising my will by deciding to throw the coffee and by using my brain to send signals to my hand, etc.

At what point, in these examples, do we lose our ability to exercise that will?

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You say, “any intentional action is the result of free choice which comes BEFORE any physical action. The antecedent to taking a sip of coffee is the purely mental choice to TAKE a sip of coffee.” 

So, if I have your view correctly, you think that the act of willing is not itself a physical act, but that it can cause physical acts.  Before I decide to take a sip of coffee, the physical facts of the world do not determine either that I will, or will not, take a sip of coffee – both options are completely compatible with how the world is before my decision.

Let me know if I don’t have that correctly, but here is what I would say if it is.

Taking a sip of coffee is a physical act that is determined by clear physical causes such as specific muscle contractions.  Those muscle contractions also have physical causes such as neurons firing.  This chain of causes is all set in motion by a non-physical decision on your view as I understand it. So at some point, a purely mental decision causes a purely physical event.  At some point, this amounts to at least a small bit of telekinesis.

Our best scientific theories simply don’t allow for this.  Of course, one doesn’t have to accept these theories as the ultimate truth.  Personally, I think they are our best guide, but plenty of people believe in spirits or minds that can directly affect the physical world, even violating physical laws in the process. In fact, this sort of view is typical in many religions, including Christianity.

Let’s suppose that you have such a view.  You don’t see any problem with a non-physical cause for a physical event, and you think that’s what a decision is.  My challenge to you now is to clearly set out how that decision occurs.  We’ll take Judas’ kiss of betrayal as an example.

Judas’ decision is a non-physical act that sets into motion a series of physical events (nerve firings, muscle contractions, etc.) that result in a kiss.  The physical events are all determined, but what about the decision itself?  There are three options as far as I can see. The first two don’t count as free will, and the third is

Determined – It seems that in order for the decision to count as free will, it can’t be fully determined.  Up until the moment Judas decides, he really could choose any option.

Random – Here, I don’t mean accidental, I mean truly random in the way we tend to think of rolling a die or in the way that quantum mechanics thinks of wave-function collapse.  Judas’ decision can’t be the result of a mental process that results in one of the options being chosen at random.  Judas might, of course, decide to choose by actually rolling a die, but free will decisions can’t in general just be random results.

Free – Free decisions don’t occur in a vacuum. Free will has to be completely free, but at the same time, it has to be an expression of character, be influenced by prior history, and be consistent with having reasons for the choice. Judas’ choice is understandable given his history and character.  He can give reasons for his choice, even if they may not be good ones.

The problem comes with spelling out the details of the third option.  For example, what does it mean for a choice to be “influenced” by past events, or to be done for reasons, in a way that doesn’t collapse into being determined or random? I haven’t seen a good answer to this.  


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