Lacking “free will” does not negate moral responsibility

A long-running feature of Jerry Coyne’s popular website has been his discussion of “free will”. Jerry sensibly rejects all notions of mind/body dualism or any notions of a supernatural “soul” which can over-ride the laws of physics.

However, Jerry is at odds with many of his readers in rejecting any notion of “free will” that is compatible with a deterministic universe. Such “compatibilist” stances have been advocated, for example, by Dan Dennett in his 2003 book “Freedom Evolves”, and recently by Sean Carroll.

In essence that dispute is simply about semantics, with both sides agreeing on the physical reality. To illustrate this, consider a laptop computer which looks at the type of a computer file and “chooses” the most appropriate program to open it with.

One could justly declare that, in such uses, the word “chooses” is purely metaphorical, since the computer’s actions are entirely determined by its programming. However, for everyone except those arguing for a supernatural soul which over-rides physics, all other “choices”, by humans or other intelligent animals, must be equally metaphorical, since they are also determined by the prior state of the system.

Thus we have two possibilities, either drop the words “choice” and “decision” from the English language, along with a whole slew of similar words and phrases (“control”, “attempt”, “option”, “plan”, “threaten”, “test”, “compel”, “consider”, “coerce” for starters), or accept that “metaphorical” choices are all there is in this universe, and thus that the word “choice” is quite properly used about deterministic machines when they make a selection from a range of options.

Dennett’s argument is that humans have evolved a sufficiently complex range of responses to any situation that it is sensible to regard them as autonomous agents making “choices” of their own “will”. The word “will” here indicates that it is their own internal properties that are making the “choice”, even though that choice is entirely determined by those internal properties combined with the laws of physics. The word “freedom” in Dennett’s title “Freedom Evolves” indicates that mammals have evolved the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose, going beyond the very narrow responses of a simpler or more primitive entity.

Coyne’s objection is that this is a “re-definition” of the traditional and still-popular conception of “free will” as residing in a dualistic soul which over-rides physics. And this is a fair complaint, except that Jerry would then have to argue for the eradication of the words “choice”, “decision”, “will”, “freedom”, et cetera, from the language. Unfortunately, so steeped is the English language in traditional dualism, that we don’t have available words that would clearly make the distinction.

Thus many “compatibilists” prefer to retain the words, and use them as they would about a computer program “choosing” actions as it has been programmed to do. This can be regarded as a “weak” meaning of “free-will” (contrasting with the “strong” meaning of the classical dualistic sense), but it is one that is easy to get used to. It seems to me as natural to regard a chess-playing computer as “choosing” a move, as it is to regard a young duckling as “choosing” whether to stray from cover in water reeds to acquire a piece of bread — even though one knows that both behaviours are determined (I am leaving out of this any possible role for randomness such as quantum indeterminacy; it doesn’t change the free-will debate since randomness can hardly be regarded as “will”).

Jerry Coyne, in railing against such a “redefining free will so that we can still have it”, also objects that:

“There is a continuum in animals from simple ones who make binary decisions based on only one input (i.e. swim toward the light and away from the dark) to ones that make decisions based on more inputs (“Did I hurt my knee the last time I ran?”). At what point does the complexity of input constitute a form of “free will”?”

But then many biological properties are also continua, including intelligence, species transitions over time, the juvenile to adult transition, and most likely consciousness. Being a continuum would indeed be a problem for the strong, over-riding-physics meaning of “free will”, since that either does or does not happen, but is not a problem for the weak meaning, indeed it is a positive feature, aligning it with other biological properties that emerge over evolutionary time.

While the above argument is largely semantics — the dispute is simply whether “free will” in the weak sense can be properly called “free will”, or whether it should be called something else (how about simply “will”?) — the related issue of moral responsibility goes beyond semantics.

Coyne writes:

“If our choices are completely determined by our genes and environments, according to the laws of physics, are we morally responsible for our actions? […] It’s my contention that, in light of the physical determinism of behavior, there’s no substantive difference between someone who kills because they have a brain tumor that makes them aggressive (e.g., Charles Whitman), and someone who kills because a rival is invading their drug business. We need to reconceive our judicial system in light of what science tells us about how the mind works.”

The short answer is that the difference between those two is that one is susceptible to social opprobrium and the deterrence of threat of punishment while the other is not. Evolution is pragmatic. And our social senses have evolved as a means of enabling and facilitating social cooperation in a species which exploits one of the most cooperative ways of life of any animal.

We have evolved anger and tears because of their effect on other people (and also, perhaps, on ourselves); we have evolved notions of justice, of ostracisation, of punishment, of atonement, because of how they affect relations between humans. And that depends only on the (entirely determined) reactions humans have to how other humans interact with them.

Since “evolution” will not have known or cared about whether we had “free will” when programming us with our social instincts, those instincts are not dependent on what we think about “free will”. Psychology says that much of what we tell ourselves about our moral judgements is a rationalisation, a surface commentary, one that is often at odds with the deeper, biological substance. Thus, we might rationalise our judicial system in terms of classical “strong” free-will, but that’s just a commentary, one that can readily replaced. Weak free-will, in the above sense, is entirely sufficient as a replacement commentary.

We get angry with a child who misbehaves because our anger will modify their behaviour. We don’t get angry with misbehaviour that results from a brain tumour because it won’t make any difference and so is pointless. Evolution is pragmatic; our social instincts are pragmatic; and our judicial system is, de facto, pragmatic.

23 thoughts on “Lacking “free will” does not negate moral responsibility

  1. Pingback: Philosophy by mskauffman - Pearltrees

  2. Michel

    People want to keep “strong free will” around just because they don’t understand that “weak free will” is just as powerful. It’s a little bit like keeping with creationism because evolution doesn’t make any sense to you. Free will matter for both moral accountability, but also for the freedom to achieve one’s goals. I think the latter is a bigger reason why people won’t let go of Free will, although it doesn’t appear in debates as often.

    What they should see is that even our goals are seeded in our past, by both nature and nurture. Eventually, as we grow up, we start running a feedback loop and influencing ourselves, therefore acquiring our ambitions. But still, what we want is the product of so much more than just ourselves. Isn’t that a wonderful thought?

    1. pyrrhicvictor4tw

      Functionally, the human nervous system is deterministic. That is to say- proton decay isn’t exactly common, and even when EM radiation aka “light” effects our metabolism in a random fashion, it does it by causing cancer. Our brains are robust to quantum phenomena, aka its just normal chemistry- no “all paths”, 2-slit dualism, or Shrodinger’s cat needed. People fight that idea because of religious convictions, or because they find the idea of “being a sort of quantum mechanical robot” distasteful. I don’t blame them that much, though, because blaming a robot for obeying its programming 100% is totally their game. Not mine. Instead of blame- I take precautions. Instead of punishing, I provide corrections. This doesnt stop the oxytocin from squirting out of their vacuoles when a lady tells me she loves me- that still feels very personal. Nor did it help when my father was murdered- that felt personal AF, and I didn’t even know the guy (a random Catholic douchebag from Costa Rica.) The idea that we humans somehow have a “choice” of different alternative futures in a fashion that is different from how a slime mold (which has no nervous system) has a “choice” to turn into a fruiting mass or not depending on its cyclic AMP wave diffusion-based-chemotaxis, or even a rock has a “choice” to split under pressure or not- thats a very persistent illusion that we have evolved to hold dear. But it is an illusion. Anybody who has some level of analytical prowess and what we call an “open mind” can begin to validate this using the amazing power of introspection. Ask yourself “when did I ever *choose* to believe anything? When did I ever *choose* to desire/want something, be it a food or sexual preference?” The best you can get is conflicted systems (eg I want to like vanilla rather than strawberry or chocolate because then my Church will stop sending me to Vanilla-camp and screaming “Jesus hates chocolate!” at me.)

    2. Coel Post author

      I think the best way of understanding “choice” is to realise that it is not implying an uncaused choice, but only a caused choice, so “choosing” is perhaps more like the word “computes”. A chess-playing computer “chooses” the move, even though that choice is the product of the prior state. That’s the only sense in which “choosing” exists, so let’s use the the word for that.

  3. John Sullivan

    I think no one is bothered saying humans make choices or have a will. The issue is whether it is meaningful to put the modifier “free” in front of either term, given a monist/deterministic/naturalistic worldview. Where do you draw the distinction between a “coerced choice” and a “free choice”? Is a brain tumor any different from a traumatic childhood experience? Both influence or constrain the behavioral outputs of the system. Let’s be honest about whether use of the word “free” is motivated by scientific or philosophical concerns, or simply political and sociological ones.

  4. Mike Duggan

    Actually, I find the monistic model of the mind to be a more interesting topic than the existence/non-existence of free will although the two obviously overlap. To be sure, the mind emerges from the physical structure and electrochemical processes of the brain, and the degree to which the brain is diseased, destroyed or otherwised diminished, the mind diminishes correspondingly if unpreditably. But this does not mean that mind (and especially our subjective experience) is reducable or entriely amenable to physicalist/physicalist explanations. In “The Self and Its Brain,” Karl Popper posits 3 “worlds” of existence: World 1 (the a priori physical world), World 2 (consciousness [and by the way computers are not conscious]), and World 3 (ideas). Although each subsequent world emerges from the one before it, it also has characteristics and qualities uniquely its own and which cannot be explained in terms of the previous category. To illustrate emergence consider: consciousness comes from biology, and biology comes from organic chemistry, and organic chemistry is incumbent on inorganic chemistry which in turn emerges from physics. But we cannot understand consciousness entirely in terms of biology, much less physics (in fact, consciousness, like other categories like time, space, matter and energy have to be taken for what they are and further defintition tends to tell us relatively little about them). The question is: what is it about the nature of the physical world that allows itself to be arranged as life and even more impressively, as self-awareness? As for determinism and the mind, this debate seems contingent on whether or not randomness exists in the world. The jury is still out on that one, although the Copenhagen model of QM holds that the world is actually quite random, especially at the smallest levels (perhaps there is a quantum aspect of the mind as well).
    PS We commonly find self-sacrificing altruism in human behavior (e.g. a soldier hurling himself on a live grenade); given that evolution occurs through individual organisms, what is the “pragmatic” consideration here to such individuals? What are the pragmatic considerations of the works of a self-destructive artist or the H-bomb? I think that evolution is a bit more nuanced than such generalizations as consequentialism and consilience imply. Please excuse any creative spellling.

  5. Lyndon

    This was a good post and I think we mostly agree with much of how the situation has been laid out.

    I am a little baffled by a few things.

    Many people are stressing that choices are “real” (or “choices” are real, “choices” are “real”). When people stress that something is “real” it is usually in contradistinction to “metaphorical” or only semantic; see Tom Clark’s continuous replies for instance about how much of a sin it is to say that choices are not real. Now, I am fine that “choices” in humans cannot get any more “real” than any choice can get, than what computers do as you accurately point out. But semantics does matter. Many people, most people, do not accept that their brain is working in the manner (at least in the same ballpark) that computers work in (for instance, Ken’s brain on jeapordy was not selecting answers in a vastly different way than the computer Watson; and the same is true for moral choice and behavioral as well). Some of that confusion comes from the way that choice making procedure consciously occurs to human beings. Using language that can help over-come these problems in how the world seems to us is a good start.

    There are plenty of ways to describe the human condition without dualistic language. We are also not that rigid. Plenty of philosophers of mind and neuroscientists of materialist bent start out by saying something like: “I cannot expunge this work of dualistic, problematic language but do not take it as any kind of endorsement.” Putting us on guard for the metaphorical language; see also Darwin’s regret about using the term “Natural Selection” and his rejoinder that he meant nothing agentically “selective” by it.

    The idea that “compatibilism” and the terminology that compatibilism employs, is something “easy to get use to” seems absurd as well. Most people in the world are not paying that much attention to these questions or to how they express this terminology. Pleas to stick with the prevailing terminology is always pleas to preserve and conserve a world in the fashion that one finds it (language constructs our world after all).

    Furthermore, terminology is not set in stone. There are always different ways of putting things; of redescribing; of neologisms, of qualifying, etc. Why should we stick to a terminology that is replete with confusion? That is replete with people confusing their own experiences.

    Those who try to claim “scientist” are thinking of “free will” in the wrong way are forgetting that scientist are as much reproducers of our culture and language and everyday concepts as everyone else. In other words, every scientist who claims that determinism has killed “free will” does so because of how they have interpreted “free will,” which quite frankly is more in line with how most “lay” people are interpreting the situation. That’s not to say that the compatibilist sense is not also in dual use by many people; but if there is large scale confusion then it is best qualify.

  6. Lyndon

    Also on your last point. I reject the reactive attitudes conceptions taken by some. Many times we overcome or re-channel “natural” emotional structures and how those emotions influence social structures. Parent’s anger towards children may, at times, help them raise children but most of the time it does not or should not.

    Similarly, a common example that I like to give is this. Let’s say you have a five year old child that is naturally yours and you adopt a 4 year old that is not related to you at all. According to our evolutionary theories these parents will feel a natural attachment to their own child and less towards the other. But as moral beings, I believe such parents have the duty to say, “Look, this child deserves to be raised as well as any other child, and to feel as loved as any other child; and their may be internal mechanisms that will encourage us not to do so. We must recognize how such emotions of “love” will fit into our parenting and do the best to overcome them.” In that sense, evolutionary psychology is a tool for us to wield in shaping the world around us and not post hoc justification for the world we find.

  7. Joshua Fisher

    This discussion has fascinated me ever since I was re-introduced to it by Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, among others. I’m not sure I have my head wrapped around what my own view is.

    On some level, it seems silly that once a ghost-in-the-machine perspective of “free will” is rejected there should be such rending of garments to follow through with the consequences.

    It is as though, having rejected the notion that an omniscient deity will reward us for “good” behavior after we die, we now pit and pine about the very existence of “goodness,” or whether we should be moral at all. Dispensing with that scheme may leave a former believer wondering *why* he should continue giving money to the Salvation Army or *why* he doesn’t beat his wife or kick his dog when he’s angry. But it won’t–in and of itself–make him uncharitable and violent.

    In the same way, rejecting the notion of a mind-body duality view of “free will” won’t change anything–and shouldn’t change anything–about our behavior. Because our behavior didn’t come from there in the first place.

  8. Mike Duggan

    Although I am agnostic on this question, it seems that the issue of free will–or at least a non-determinstic basis that would allow for free will–might be scientifcially settled (i.e. corroborated or refuted) in the not-too distant future. If it could shown that the mind is greater than the sum of the energy that goes into it or (more likely) that the energy becomes configured in fundamentally unpredictable ways, then free will would remain a possibility. The question of free will might go back to the Greeks’ notions of whether or not we are capible of being rational (or in modern Popperian terms, can we learn from our mistakes and correct our mistaken beliefs in light of experience, good faith discussion and more powerful explanations?)? The British physicst, Julian Barbour, writes in the “The End of Time,” that “[b]rain research confirms that what we think are spontaneous decisions, acts of free will, are prepared in the unconscious mind before we become aware of them.” I don’t know what kind of “research” or imaging he is referring to, but I wonder what it would show when I change my mind as the result of being shown that the answer to a math equation I have just done is incorrect.

  9. Ray Gedaly

    As a philosopher once said, “Even if it could be proven that there is no such thing as free will, it wouldn’t change anything.” 🙂

  10. Mike Duggan

    I’m not sure the observation that “[i]f determinism is correct, there can be no actions/choices/etc. only reactions” is itself necessarily correct. Stephen Wolfram writes somewhere in “A New Kind of Science” that non-deterministic results can come from even fairly simple (almost Newtonian) deterministic relationships. The Problem of Three bodies may be an example: if a small planet is caught in the gravitational field of a large planet or star, it is fairly easy to figure out its orbital trajectory. However, if we add a single other body, the behavior of all three becomes far less predictable–if at all. It boggles the mind that this sort of computational irreducibility can come from such a simple and limited set. When we throw in what appears to be the random behavior of matter and energy at the smallest levels–and even large open systems, like weather patterns–my tendancy would be to side with indeterminism.

  11. Pingback: More on free will | The Heretical Philosopher

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  14. Pingback: My Problems With Compatibilist Free-Will « Ramblings

  15. Jamie Rogers

    I’ve never read so much crap in my life, we do have free will, if i want to kill myself i could do it right now, is that not the most powerful form of freewill. So keep getting your degrees and all the other crap. The truth is, even as i type this, i am free, free of religion and free of your brainwashed world. You are less because since birth you have been molded and shaped into what you are today.

    1. Brad

      “IF I WANT”….You see your very actions are based on your desires and your desires are NOT CHOSEN BY YOU!! Your desires are conditioned….you do not choose whether you like chocolate or not. And if your body is attracted by its scent/taste…you will eat…if it is repulsed you will reject it—you do not decide this-it is just the way “that” body works. If you choose to “kill yourself”….this thought has been determined by the past experiences your body has encountered. The fact is you COULD kill yourself…but your “choice” not to has been determined and consequently you WONT!! For “your” particular body along with its acquired responses/actions …all determined-based on its prior experiences… it WONT/CANT commit suicide. Choice…by the way is somewhat illusory in that you must always make a choice to do something or nothing — in each moment….you MUST ALWAYS (make a choice)-DO or Not Do…but its not your choice to not have one…you MUST make one….and so your freedom to choose is governed by you MUST CHOOSE !! And by the way….just because you can decide the Attempt (to kill yourself)….does not ever mean you will 100% succeed. There are many people who attempt the event and somehow “death” doesn’t come their way!!

  16. oogenhand

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    Nevertheless, if there is no “free will” there is no difference between someone who can’t work, and someone who doesn’t want to work, i.e. between laziness and disability.

    Also, if there is still moral responsibility, eternal damnation is still a possibility.


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