Discussion Questions: Free Will and Free Agency

September 29, 2012 at 18:00 (Philosophy, Psychology)

A few weeks ago, I came across a very nicely done article at Big Questions Online,offering a unique treatment of the classic “free will, determinism, and neuroscience” topic, penned by experimental philosophy star Eddy Nahmias. Though my views differ in some ways from the his, I really dug the presentation of a kind of compatibilism that focuses on reasons-responsiveness and is sort of reminiscent of Strawson’s theories. It made me realize that my own stance toward compatibilism has become both much more nuanced and much more friendly than my writing in previous years might be taken to indicate. Noting that shift, and inspired by the BQO article’s excellent, highly focused set of discussion questions, I decided to set down what my current views are. I can only guess how they will come to differ from what I think another three years down the road …

  • What do you think free will is?

To begin with, I think it is crucial that we differentiate two ideas, the conflation of which has been the source of endless confusion on this topic – I’ll call them free will and free agency. We can think of free will as a property which, intuitively (I am guessing) many people think human decisions and actions have: that they are neither products of strict causality nor random emanations of stoachsticity, but rather the products of a will that is not bound to, but rather breaks from, the causal laws of nature. Meanwhile, free agency can be thought of as the capacity of an agent to deliberately (and deliberatively) select courses of action and effectively realize her preferences. Whether your choice of dessert is or is not ultimately determined by your brain’s mechanistic execution of a complex decision procedure – whether this decision procedure shatters the causal chains of the universe – is a matter of free will. Whether the sexual desires of a pedophile are capable of being reined in by his respect for law and his wish to refrain from causing harm, or whether women in the 18th century were generally free to live out envisionings of the good life that didn’t involve subservience to men – those are matters of free agency.

  • Do you think free will is all-or-nothing or that we possess and exercise free will to varying degrees?  How much free will do we have?

Free will is all-or-nothing. Either decisions and actions are contracausal, or they are not. Free agency, on the other hand, is decidedly not all-or-nothing. It comes only in degrees, and in fact it’s difficult to imagine a situation of absolute free agency or its absolute absence. I believe that it is almost certainly the case we have zero free will, for reasons explained in question 4. How much free agency one has, on the other hand, is a matter of one’s circumstances – to a small extent dispositional factors (as shown by research on the Marshmallow Test), to a large extent situational factors (including systemic societal dynamics). The free agency of people living in poverty, for example, is tragically undercut by the effects of decision fatigue (per the work of Dean Spears). Addiction is best thought of as a disorder characterized by steep reductions of free agency – not by social processes but by the alteration of neural pathways. But even a person of robustly sound mind can be denied free agency by brain-external factors (injury, bodily disease), and body-external factors (oppression, incarceration).

  • Is free will necessary to deserve praise and blame for one’s actions?  If so, how much are people responsible for their actions and their situations?

Free will has no necessary or actual connection to either free agency or moral responsibility or legal responsibility, pace some who have tried to argue that free will is a prerequisite for responsibility (which they do by muddling together free will and free agency). On the other hand, free agency and moral / legal responsibility are intimately connected. The concept of responsibility is best understood pragmatically – as one applied within the broader milieu of human interaction as part of a set of practices aimed at influencing behavior and attitudes via reasons and norms. 


There is a very close conceptual nexus between free agency and reasons-responsiveness – especially norm-responsiveness (see 5.5 and 5.6 here); absent free agency and norm-responsiveness, holding an individual morally responsible is entirely pointless, though it may often feel otherwise. I tend to think that evolutionary moral psychology – with a heavy emphasis on cultural evolution – supplies us a very good theory as to what our practices of responsibility are aimed at and why our intuitions sometimes miss those targets. These intuitions are heuristics, which (by definition) means they track an actual target by reference to another target, a proxy. The actual target is reasons-responsiveness, and the proxy is what we intuit to be moral desert. The environment in which these intuitions and practices evolved made moral desert a rather fitting proxy for reasons-responsiveness: we tend to over-attribute the latter relative to the actual existence of the former, which is a way of erring on the side of caution (better, from an evolutionary perspective, to punish the innocent than let the guilty walk). We also tend to attribute moral desert in cases where free agency is impaired by brain-internal factors, which made all the sense in the world back when we couldn’t understand or remedy such factors. In the 21st century, however, the gap between the actual target and the proxy has grown vast due to changing circumstances, and we are better able to identify what we’re actually going for and attempt to cut out the heuristic middle-man – hence the clash between what is practical and what feels right.

Even when well-warranted, though, our practices of praise, blame, and responsibility are answerable to their pragmatic consequences; thus, even though attributions of responsibility are not always defeated by concerns about free agency and norm-responsiveness, it does not follow that we have reason to wield blame and punishment retributively unless doing so brings about preferable results.

  • Is free will inconsistent with a naturalistic worldview—with an understanding of our conscious minds as physically instantiated in our brains?

Free agency, and by extension moral and legal responsibility, are entirely compatible with a naturalistic worldview, as they concern only the capacity of decision-makers to exhibit reasons-responsiveness, which requires nothing in the way of free will. (Nonetheless, we are reliably insufficiently sensitive as to the existence of free agency in particular cases of moral or legal blame, due to errant moral intuitions, and we must always try to debias ourselves in this regard.) A sufficiently sophisticated AI could have free agency. I think it likely that certain non-human animals – a few primates, cetaceans, cephalopods, and corvids – have got the right stuff as well.


On the other hand, it is almost certainly the case that free will is incompatible with a naturalistic worldview. The argument for this looks quite similar to arguments for the non-existence of deities: the natural sciences supply us a model of how the world tends to work and what sorts of things it tends to contain, and without extraordinary theoretical gymnastics that stand an infinitesimally slim chance of accurately mapping reality, there is nothing that free will could be, could correspond to, could reduce to, in that model. Essentially, it’s an exaggerated case of Occam’s Razor: either nearly everything in our model of the workings of the universe is misstated and needs to undergo drastic revision (viz. somehow writing in a category of “events that are neither caused nor random”) in order to accommodate the existence of free will, or this extraordinarily well-tested model is in fact unchallenged in this regard because there’s actually no such thing as free will. The latter option is a vastly safer bet, absent extraordinary evidence to the contrary, of which there is none to my knowledge. 


Now, you might wonder, even with compatibilism about responsibility in place, isn’t it an existential disaster if there’s no free will? Whither the meaningfulness of life? How can I feel that my actions and decisions, preferences and attitudes, are really mine? Shall I regard myself as nothing more than a glorified (if norm-sensitive) robot, as undignified dreaming meat? To which I’d respond by again stressing the analogy with arguments for the nonexistence of god: notwithstanding those arguments’ commanding strength within the practical sphere of science and empiricism, when it comes to the broader realm of human existence we have many perfectly good reasons, practical and spiritual-existential, to hang on to beliefs (or at least aliefs) about free will. Not all of our beliefs have the purpose of helping us navigate the world, of making it predictable and tractable. Many – especially among aliefs – are instead about “coloring in” our lives, about making them meaningful, enchanting them with narrative and thematic resonance, pulling our stories together into coherent and livable arcs, creating and curating useful fictions that carve sheltering niches of perceived order out of the universe’s cold chaos. These are all okay – indeed, wholly worthwhile – things to do as long as they don’t subvert one’s pursuit of one’s preferences on the whole. So go ahead – as long as you’re not doing actual science or debating policy from a place of public reason, help yourself to all the beliefs and intuitions you please about free will (and other supernatural things); I do.

Just as long as we don’t confuse it with free agency, or start treating people as though their norm-unresponsive behavior is proper grounds for moralizing or punitive action.


1 Comment

  1. Sustainability & Moral Luck | Sustainability Ethics said,

    […] Discussion Questions: Free Will and Free Agency (rolandnadler.wordpress.com) […]

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