In this post, I’m going to assume that the only freedom worth having is libertarian free will: the free will I possess if there are choices that I have made during my life where I could have chosen differently, under identical circumstances. That is, I believe that libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism. By contrast, indeterminism is compatible with the existence of libertarian freedom, but in no way implies it.
There are some people who think that even if your choices are fully determined by your circumstances, they are still free, if you selected them for a reason and if you are capable of being educated to act for better reasons. People who think like that are known as compatibilists. I’m not one of them; I’m an incompatibilist. Specifically, I’m what an agent-causal incompatibilist: I believe that humans have a kind of agency (an ability to act) that cannot be explained in terms of physical events.
Some time ago, I came across The Cogito Model of human freedom, on The Information Philosopher Web site, by Dr. Roddy Doyle. The Website represents a bold philosophical attempt to reconcile the valid insights underlying both determinism and indeterminism. The authors of the model argue that it accords well with the findings of quantum theory, and guarantees humans libertarian freedom, but at the same time avoids the pitfall of making chance the cause of our actions. Here’s an excerpt:
Our Cogito model of human freedom combines microscopic quantum randomness and unpredictability with macroscopic determinism and predictability, in a temporal sequence.
Why have philosophers been unable for millennia to see that the common sense view of human freedom is correct? Partly because their logic or language preoccupation makes them say that either determinism or indeterminism is true, and the other must be false. Our physical world includes both, although the determinism we have is only an adequate description for large objects. So any intelligible explanation for free will must include both indeterminism and adequate determinism.
At first glance, Dr. Doyle’s Cogito Model appears to harmonize well with the idea of libertarian free will. Doyle makes a point of disavowing determinism, upholding indeterminism, championing Aristotle, admiring Aquinas and upholding libertarian free will. However, it turns out that he’s no Aristotelian, and certainly no Thomist. Indeed, he isn’t even a bona fide incompatibilist. Nevertheless, Doyle’s Cogito Model is a highly instructive one, for it points the way to how a science-friendly, authentically libertarian account of freedom might work.
There are passages on Dr. Doyle’s current Web site (see for instance paragraphs 3 and 4 of his page on Libertarianism) where he appears to suggest that our character and our values determine our actions. This is of course absurd: if I could never act out of character, then I could not be said to have a character. I would be a machine.
Misleadingly, in his Web page on Libertarianism, Dr. Doyle conflates the incoherent view that “an agent’s decisions are not connected in any way with character and other personal properties” (which is surely absurd) with the entirely distinct (and reasonable) view that “one’s actions are not determined by anything prior to a decision, including one’s character and values, and one’s feelings and desires” (emphases mine). Now, I have no problem with the idea that my bodily actions are determined by my will, which is guided by my reason. However, character, values, feelings and desires are not what makes an action free – especially as Doyle makes it quite clear in his Cogito Model that he envisages all these as being ultimately determined by non-rational, physicalistic causes:
Macro Mind is a macroscopic structure so large that quantum effects are negligible. It is the critical apparatus that makes decisions based on our character and values.
Information about our character and values is probably stored in the same noise-susceptible neural circuits of our brain…
The Macro Mind has very likely evolved to add enough redundancy, perhaps even error detection and correction, to reduce the noise to levels required for an adequate determinism.
The Macro Mind corresponds to natural selection by highly determined organisms.
There is a more radical problem with Doyle’s model: he acknowledges the reality of downward causation, but because he is a materialist, he fails to give a proper account of downward causation. He seems to construe it in terms of different levels of organization in the brain: Macro Mind (“a macroscopic structure so large that quantum effects are negligible… the critical apparatus that makes decisions based on our character and values”) and Micro Mind (“a random generator of frequently outlandish and absurd possibilities”) – the latter being susceptible to random quantum fluctuations, from which the former makes a rational selection.
Doyle goes on to say:
Our decisions are then in principle predictable, given knowledge of all our past actions and given the randomly generated possibilities in the instant before decision. However, only we know the contents of our minds, and they exist only within our minds. Thus we can feel fully responsible for our choices, morally and legally.
This passage leads me to conclude that Doyle is a sort of compatibilist, after all. As I’ve said, I’m not.
So how do I envisage freedom? I’d like to go back to a remark by Karl Popper, in his address entitled, Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind, delivered at Darwin College, Cambridge, November 8, 1977. Let me say at the outset that I disagree with much of what Popper says. However, I think he articulated a profound insight when he said:
A choice process may be a selection process, and the selection may be from some repertoire of random events, without being random in its turn. This seems to me to offer a promising solution to one of our most vexing problems, and one by downward causation.
Let’s get back to the problem of downward causation. How does it take place? The eminent neurophysiologist and Nobel prize winner, Sir John Eccles, openly advocated a “ghost in the machine” model in his book Facing Reality, 1970 (pp. 118-129). He envisaged that the “ghost” operates on neurons that are momentarily poised close to a threshold level of excitability.
But that’s not how I picture it.
My model of libertarian free will
Reasoning and choosing are indeed immaterial processes: they are actions that involve abstract, formal concepts. (By the way, computers don’t perform formal operations; they are simply man-made material devices that are designed to mimic these operations. A computer is no more capable of addition than a cash register, an abacus or a Rube Goldberg machine.)
Reasoning is an immaterial activity. This means that reasoning doesn’t happen anywhere – certainly not in some spooky Cartesian soul hovering 10 centimeters above my head. It has no location. Ditto for choice. However, choices have to be somehow realized on a physical level, otherwise they would have no impact on the world. The soul doesn’t push neurons, as Eccles appears to think; instead, it selects from one of a large number of quantum possibilities thrown up at some micro level of the brain (Doyle’s micro mind). This doesn’t violate quantum randomness, because a selection can be non-random at the macro level, but random at the micro level. The following two rows of digits will serve to illustrate my point.
1 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 1
0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 0 1
The above two rows of digits were created by a random number generator. Now suppose I impose the macro requirement: keep the columns whose sum equals 1, and discard the rest. I now have:
1 0 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0
Each row is still random, but I have imposed a non-random macro-level constraint. That’s how my will works when I make a choice.
For Aristotelian-Thomists, a human being is not two things – a soul and a body – but one being, capable of two radically different kinds of acts – material acts (which other animals are also capable of) and formal, immaterial actions, such as acts of choice and deliberation. In practical situations, immaterial acts of choice are realized as a selection from one of a large number of randomly generated possible pathways.
On a neural level, what probably happens when an agent decides to raise his/her arm is this: the arm goes through a large number of micro-level muscular movements (tiny twitches) which are randomly generated at the quantum level. The agent tries these out over a very short interval of time (a fraction of a second) before selecting the one which feels right – namely, the one which matches the agent’s desire to raise his/her arm. This selection continues during the time interval over which the agent raises his/her arm. The wrong (randomly generated quantum-level) micro-movements are continually filtered out by the agent.
The agent’s selection usually reflect his/her character, values and desires (as Doyle proposes) – but on occasion, it may not. We can and do act out of character, and we sometimes act irrationally. Our free will is not bound to act according to reason, and sometimes we act contrary to it (akrasia, or weakness of will, being a case in point).
So I agree with much of what Doyle has to say, but with this crucial difference: I do not see our minds as having been formed by the process of natural selection. Since thinking is an immaterial activity, any physicalistic account of its origin is impossible in principle.