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Is Free Will Possible for the Physicalist?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If you recall, at the end of the series comparing physicalism and dualism, I promised to look at additional problems for physicalism.  Before doing so, let me remind you what physicalists believe.  Here is philosopher J. P. Moreland:

According to physicalism, a human being is merely a physical entity.  The only things that exist are physical substances, properties, and events.  When it comes to humans, the physical substance is the material body, especially the parts called the brain and central nervous system.  The physical substance called the brain has physical properties, such as a certain weight, volume, size, electrical activity, chemical composition, and so forth.

Physicalists are usually metaphysical materialists who believe that all that exists is matter in its different forms.  There is nothing immaterial that exists.

Moreland brings us to a fundamental human capacity that we all take for granted, that of free will.  What do we mean by free will?  Moreland explains:

When we use the term free will, we mean what is called libertarian freedom: Given choices A and B, I can literally choose to do either one. No circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine my choice. My choice is up to me, and if I do A or B, I could have done otherwise. I act as an agent who is the ultimate originator of my own actions.

Is there room for free will under physicalism?  Moreland argues that there is not.

If physicalism is true, then human free will does not exist.  Instead, determinism is true.  If I am just a physical system, there is nothing in me that has the capacity to freely choose to do something.  Material systems, at least large-scale ones, change over time in deterministic fashion according to the initial conditions of the system and the laws of chemistry and physics.  A pot of water will reach a certain temperature at a given time in a way determined by the amount of water, the input of heat, and the laws of heat transfer.

There are other problems that follow if determinism is true.  What about moral obligation or responsibility?  What about moral praise or blame?

Now, when it comes to morality, it is hard to make sense of moral obligation and responsibility if determinism is true.  They seem to presuppose freedom of the will.  If I “ought” to do something, it seems to be necessary to suppose that I can do it.  No one would say that I ought to jump to the top of a fifty-floor building and save a baby, or that I ought to stop the American Civil War, because I do not have the ability to do either.  If physicalism is true, I do not have any genuine ability to choose my actions.

Moreland concludes with the following:

It is safe to say that physicalism requires a radical revision of our commonsense notions of freedom, moral obligation, responsibility, and punishment.  On the other hand, if these commonsense notions are true, physicalism is false.


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Comments

  • Sean

    Good stuff, Bill. Thanks for the post!
    Sean McDowell

  • rericsawyer

    I think there are some things, from the physicalists perspective, that give at least the appearance of free will. First, there is of course the difference that in computers we call hardware and software, the mechanism and the instruction set according to which this generalist machine runs. If we take what is probably an abbreviated instruction set, with some code in ROM (or DNA) and some RAM filled with the results of learning (as in B.F. Skinner) plus downloaded data files, we can get a fairly decent model.

    One might think that this system would always produce the same results, the same decisions, and hence, the same interpretations and learning. But it wouldn’t take much randomness injected into the system at an early age, or a very little variance by probabilities to make the outcomes wildly divergent after running the program for 20-30 and more years.

    These differences would give the illusion of free will.

    As to morality, using the same model, one could envision a sort of error-checking utility that evaluated the results of other processors work. We use such programs now. They even call for maintenance on other components in the system. Again, the variances of real-world conditions instead of programming diagram certainties allows for all the illusion of free will one could want. It would or could certainly pass far from the programmers own opinions.
    Of course, one of the difficulties is that original programmer.

    But the question is would it be possible to distinguish between such a contrived world, mechanistic and yet unpredictable, and the world as we have it? Presuming there IS a difference?

  • Hiero5ant

    “Before doing so, let me remind you what physicalists believe. Here is philosopher J. P. Moreland:”

    You couldn’t find any physicalists to cite regarding what it is they believe?

    “Let me remind you what conservatives believe. According to Karl Marx, they say…”

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    If you would like a detailed introduction to physicalism from someone besides Moreland, then please go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on physicalism.

  • Andrew Ryan

    The Reasonable Doubts podcast had several shows on free will. They’re sceptics and they argue free will is an illusion. They also discuss at lengths the ramifications of this. For me, it doesn’t make much difference to how I think we should treat issues like crime and punishment. And I don’t see how positing a God makes much difference to the issue either. An all knowing God who planned everything in advance poses its own problems for free will.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Eric,
    I don’t think your computer model with randomness injected escapes determinism, unless you allow for an outside agent to inject the randomness into the system. If the agent is itself part of the deterministic physical universe, then the randomness is as determined as everything else.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Hi Sean! Good to hear from you and thanks for the encouragement.

  • rericsawyer

    Bill, I totally agree.
    My point was that such a system would give the appearance of free will, and not the thing itself. Thus the question as to how the true and the illusion may be told apart.
    Anyway, the question interests me, and seems relevant. Don’t bother with it if you find it a diversion.

  • Boz

    I am persuaded that materialism is true, because I have not discovered any immaterial things.

    I tentatively agree that free will (The ability to have done otherwise) does not exist.

    I don’t really see this as a problem, I feel quite comfortable about this.

    The resulting practical issues of moral obligation, responsibility, and punishment are solved by pragmatism.

    —-

    “If physicalism is true, then … determinism is true.”

    This is clearly false, due to the possible (probable?) existence of objectively random events under physicalism, e.g. atomic decay.

    Perhaps there is some misunderstanding of terms.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Boz, I don’t see how randomness introduces free will. It might inject chaos into the system, but surely that does nothing for free will?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Randomness is a tricky word. Most of the time it used as a synonym for “we don’t know what the causes of this effect are.” For example, when we roll a die and say that the result is random, there are deterministic causes at work which dictate which side the die comes up. It’s just that those causes are extremely complicated and we aren’t able to isolate all of them, so we call the die roll random.

  • Hiero5ant

    But in science and mathematics it happens to have a very precise and formal definition. Randomness is always randomness with respect to some other thing. One wants a fair die, for example, to be random with respect to past results, and by extension random with respect to what the thrower wants or needs. This is the sense which biology uses to describe genetic mutations, for example.

    One corollary that immediately follows is that random is the antonym of determined, and further that this is legitimately an exhaustive dichotomy in the description of systems. So, exactly to the degree you believe human action is not determined, you believe it is random.

    Which is why physicalists point out that libertarian free will is incoherent on its face.

  • Hiero5ant

    Yes, that is quite a philosophical howler, and a perfect illustration of why one wants to learn philosophy from philosophers, not apologists like Moreland who may happen to have a philosophy degree.

    That claim would be instantly marked wrong on any exam in any freshman intro to philosophy course. This is completely orthogonal to whether determinism is in fact true, or whether physicalism is true, or whether free will exists. This is purely an issue of not being able to accurately state opposing views — not coincidentally, the identical problem pointed out (to no avail) in the testimony series.

  • Hiero5ant

    p.s. the threading is a little weird, this was in response to Boz’s comment on whether physicalism entails determinism (hint: it doesn’t)

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Please follow the “comments guidance” link at the top of the blog. Instead of personally attacking Moreland, why don’t you explain why physicalism does not lead to determinism?

  • Hiero5ant

    I thought I’d already done that, but see also Boz pointing out that according to our best physics, determinism is objectively false at the quantum level, and so no physicalist who follows the science believes in determinism.

    Remember that randomness in this context is randomness with respect to something. Assume arguendo that everything is physical or supervenes on the physical — i.e. there is no causal relation without spatiotemporal extended relation. In a completely deterministic universe then, the (prior state of the system + dynamic laws of the system) taken together logically entail a single state of the system after the transformation. For example, if I hook up a 9-volt power source to a 100-ohm resistor, the law “V=iR” taken with these initial conditions entails a single specific value for the current (“i” in the above equation).

    However, it epistemically could have turned out (and at the quantum level, did turn out) that physicalism is true but certain states are not entailed by (prior states + laws). Continuing from the above example, the physicalist ontology of volts and ohms and amps would remain intact, but posterior states would have been random with respect to prior states. Hence, physicalism without determinism.

    If someone wants to argue for free will (which is great, since free will exists!), one of the first things he or she must attend to is that one’s beliefs, actions etc. are either 1) random with respect to one’s prior beliefs, experiences etc. or 2) not random i.e. determined WRT prior states of the system. I think everyone, especially christians, is going to want to say that their beliefs are non-random. We try to teach our children lessons on the value of hard work because we hope their future actions will be non-random WRT (i.e. determined by) the lessons we are teaching them now. We hire football coaches because we expect them to do things which cause i.e. non-randomly determine the future behavior of football players.

    I have to close by saying your reply strikes me as a bizarre mode of burden-shifting. Make a claim that is prima facie absurd (“dozens of Democratic congressmen are actually communists!!!”), and when challenged, punt away the burden (“well, why don’t you prove they’re not!”) But to each his own, I guess.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I agree with Bill here, and for what it’s worth didn’t see any burden of proof shifting. He’s already explained why he thinks one leads to the other, there’s no fallacy in asking for a proper critique beyond questioning Moreland’s credentials. And I don’t think introducing randomness makes any difference to free will, and have heard sceptics give good convincing reasoning to argue why not.

  • Hiero5ant

    He didn’t show any entailment, but appealed to contingent observations. There’s a difference.

    And no, introducing randomness doesn’t help with free will — that was my whole point. As I tried to argue above, if anything determinism is a necessary precondition for free will. In what sense are you “you”, a you who is responsible for your actions, except insofar as your actions are the causal product of your personality traits, your beliefs, etc.?

    If someone tries to tell me they are “free but not determined”, I simply ask, since the opposite of determined is random, exactly how behaving randomly is supposed to give them moral agency. It doesn’t.

    The problem with free will is that it is an ineliminably normative concept, and like all normative concepts floats free of facts. So while non-normative facts such as whether and to what extent one’s actions were random with respect to prior states are relevant to deciding to ascribe free will to an agent, they can’t determine it. Therefore not only is whether physicalism entails determinism a red herring, whether physicalism is true is also a red herring in the context of this discussion.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    First of all, I don’t think that quantum mechanics, interpreted properly, yields true ontological indeterminacy. It is, rather, an epistemological problem. We simply don’t have enough information to know, for sure, what a posterior state at the quantum level will be, so we model it probabilistically. There is no ontological randomness. Reality is not truly indeterminate at the quantum level.

    Second, even if the sub-atomic world was indeterministic, it does not follow that the super-atomic world is indeterministic. Free will has to do with what is going on in the human brain, and I am not aware that any neuroscientists are modeling brain function as indeterminate.

    In order to show that physicalism does not entail determinism at the level of the human brain and central nervous system, you would have to show how that actually works. It seems that what you’ve done in your comment is just state that it works without explaining how it works.

    Bottom line: I still claim that determinism rules at the the quantum level and above it. I do not see how the physicalist can deny this and stay consistent with physicalism.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Hiero5ant,
    I do not think that the opposite of determined is random. Determinism is a statement about causality and randomness is a statement about epistemology (it just means we don’t know what caused the event in question).

    The opposite of determinism is indeterminism, which means that there is no prior cause to the event in question.

  • http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/ tildeb

    The blogging debate about free will is all the rage these days. One the biggest problems is defining what these terms actually mean. Having followed much of the debate, I am very sympathetic to determinism, meaning “Could have I done otherwise and, if so, why didn’t I?” Another way to think of it is, if you were to replace another person atom for atom, would you be any different than being that other person… and, if you believe so, how… based on what evidence?

    In the post, Bill uses the words ‘metaphysical materialist’ in this rather paradoxical definition of describing someone who (Bill insists) is an adherent to ‘physicalism’. Can a supposed ‘thing’ be a ‘thing’ without any material component? Without material substance, how can such a ‘thing’ be known to ‘exist’?

    Once we get into the definitions of what these terms actually mean in reality (rather than metaphysical musings) and then check in with what reality has to say about the matter (pun intended), we soon discover that what people call ‘will’ is revealed by reality to not be a ‘thing’ but an emergent property of the brain. Again, reality shows us compelling evidence that the property is completely dependent on the functioning of the brain. In this sense, the property we call ‘will’ is not ‘free’ whatsoever but completely constrained by this dependent causal relationship for its existence and operation. If we can (apparently) adjust this emergent property, then what is this ‘thing’ that is doing the adjusting: an emergent property of the emergent property… yet somehow ‘willfully’ connected to cause physical effect?

    Whew. That’s a lot of explaining – and in need of a lot of evidence – to come up with before we can begin to justify any belief in a causal ‘free will’… especially one that supposedly exists independent yet connected to the brain while in a non material disembodied state. So I agree with Moreland, and by extension Bill, that causal effects by means of a mechanism requires a “radical revision of our commonsense notions” when such notions are without support from reality.

    No matter how uncomfortable we may feel about not having any free will, no matter how counter-intuitive this may seem to us, reality seems determined to put our preferences for what appears to me to be a fairytale ‘thing’ we call free will to bed once and for all. Now let’s find out what’s really going on in our heads.

  • Hiero5ant

    Hiero5ant,
I do not think that the opposite of determined is random. Determinism is a statement about causality and randomness is a statement about epistemology (it just means we don’t know what caused the event in question).
    No, in fact they are both simply formal attributes of our descriptions of phenomena. Ascriptions of causes are, in a sense insufficiently appreciated by the culture at large, about something “up in here” (points at head) rather than something “out there” (waves around at the world). To say that it is true or false that Y is caused by X is to make a claim about our best models of whether we expect a Y following an X. And since a model is simply a set of propositions, we are simply employing the mathematical concept of (non)randomness-with-respect-to to the relation of Xs and Ys.
    Have you grappled with my Ohm’s Law example? Do you see how (under this model) the value of the current in amperes is non-random with respect to the intial voltage and resistance conditions? Do you see how the difference between this model and a model which said the value of the current was uncaused would just be that the value was random with respect to the initial conditions?
    There is no need in any of this to appeal to metaphysics or ontology when talking about cause. All one needs to talk about are these purely formal properties of our models and their behavior in counterfactual situations. Therefore, finding out whether causal determinism is or is not true just is looking at our models and seeing whether they have conditions at time T+1 random with respect to the conditions at time T. Clearly, not all questions about formal nonrandomness (i.e. determination) are questions about causal relations; but all questions about causal relations are questions about formal nonrandomness (of models).

  • Hiero5ant

    (ewwwww gross what happened to my formatting? Just delete that first attempt if you want.)

    “Hiero5ant,
I do not think that the opposite of determined is random. Determinism is a statement about causality and randomness is a statement about epistemology (it just means we don’t know what caused the event in question).”

    No, in fact they are both simply formal attributes of our descriptions of phenomena. Ascriptions of causes are, in a sense insufficiently appreciated by the culture at large, about something “up in here” (points at head) rather than something “out there” (waves around at the world). To say that it is true or false that Y is caused by X is to make a claim about our best models of whether we expect a Y following an X. And since a model is simply a set of propositions, we are simply employing the mathematical concept of (non)randomness-with-respect-to to the relation of Xs and Ys.

    Have you grappled with my Ohm’s Law example? Do you see how (under this model) the value of the current in amperes is non-random with respect to the intial voltage and resistance conditions? Do you see how the difference between this model and a model which said the value of the current was uncaused would just be that the value was random with respect to the initial conditions?

    There is no need in any of this to appeal to metaphysics or ontology when talking about cause. All one needs to talk about are these purely formal properties of our models and their behavior in counterfactual situations. Therefore, finding out whether causal determinism is or is not true just is looking at our models and seeing whether they have conditions at time T+1 random with respect to the conditions at time T. Clearly, not all questions about formal nonrandomness (i.e. determination) are questions about causal relations; but all questions about causal relations are questions about formal nonrandomness (of models).

  • Hiero5ant

    “First of all, I don’t think that quantum mechanics, interpreted properly, yields true ontological indeterminacy.”

    Well, you are of course free to think that, just as one is free to think that 98% of climate scientists are in on a vast conspiracy “to get grant money”, but half a century of experiments on hidden variable theories are not going away and are not kind to interpretations of QM that try to sneak determinism in the back door. I hasten to add that the nuances of those discussions are far above my pay grade, but the basic outlines of scholarly consensus on the topic are easy enough for an interested amateur to discern.

    But that’s neither here nor there — there are some pretty smart physicists holding out who try to frame models of the phenomena which preserve determinism, and who knows, they may turn out to be right tomorrow. The point is that you understand what it would look like for a physical theory to be causally indeterminate. You disagree that these theories are true? Fine! But if you admit that there can be such theories, then you admit that physicalism does not entail determinism by itself, but only in conjunction with contingent observation.

    “Free will has to do with what is going on in the human brain, and I am not aware that any neuroscientists are modeling brain function as indeterminate.”

    Yes I agree. If only more of your dualist colleagues understood that free will is a brain thing, and that determinism about brains appears to be true, and therefore any notion of free will is going to have to be compatible with these observations!

    “It seems that what you’ve done in your comment is just state that it works without explaining how it works.”

    You have misunderstood me. I have never argued that that macro-level determinism about brains is false. I have argued that physicalism BY ITSELF does not entail determinism, and further that determinism, far from contradicting free will, is a necessary component of it. Have you ever tried to teach someone a moral lesson (say, teach a child the value of sharing)? Did you or did you not do so in the hopes that your actions would cause (i.e. have a nonrandom relation to) certain specific behaviors in the future?

  • Boz

    I also don’t think that ‘objectively random’ events introduce free will, firstly because they are too small to effect brain cells, and secondly because they do not introduce agency.

    if ‘objectively random’ events exist (which they probably do), then determinism is false. e.g. under determinism, the exact time of atomic decay would be knowable, but it has been shown to be unknowable.

  • Boz

    the term i used was ‘objectively random’, which means a specific thing.

    see the Shimony quote in this article.

    http://www.uhh.hawaii.edu/~ronald/310/Quanta.htm

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “Bottom line: I still claim that determinism rules at the the quantum level and above it.”

    As jflcroft noted earlier, neither of us are in a position to pick and choose the facts that we prefer.

    In quantum mechanics, hidden variable theories are very probably false and our choice to believe them does not change this fact. It just gives us an incorrect belief.

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  • http://www.sebnozzi.com/ Sebastian Nozzi

    Where do Moreland’s quotations come from? A particular book?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt
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