August 5, 2005

Introspection and Free Will

It is impossible to prove determinism a priori; there is nothing logically necessary about it. Scientific determinists tend to talk as though the question can be settled before examining any evidence, but scientific determinism is an empirical hypothesis that has not been proven. In fact, quantum mechanics seems to hint that matter may be indeterminate. This, of course, does not prove free will, but it leaves open the possibility.

Since the free will-determinism debate cannot be settled a priori, one useful approach is to use introspection. Introspection has its limits, but can be very helpful. Most importantly, it provides us with understanding of how we actually view the world without theory, before declaring some of those views illusions because they do not fit the theory. Rather, unless we have a very good reason to reject them, introspection should provide our default hypotheses.

The greatest introspective challenge to free will is psychological determinism. This theory asserts that we always act on our strongest desire or reason and are therefore always determined. I argue against this thesis in this article. To summarise, I argue that the thesis is question-begging, and requires stepping away from the introspective evidence in order to explain gaps in the evidence using the very theory that the evidence is intended to prove.

Rather, the introspective evidence favours free will. In a standard case of free agency, my reason tells me one thing that is best and my desires desire something(s) else more strongly. In this case, I will sometimes do what my reason says is best and in other cases I will do what my desires desire. There is no clear pattern to this, but I instead sometimes do one and sometimes do the other.

The cause of this cannot be the reason, or else I would always follow reason, nor is it the desires, or else I would always follow the desires. Nor is it some cause separate from me. When I make this decision, it seems as though I am making the decision. If the decision were being made from some external cause, the action would become dissociative. I would feel as though my body were moving in spite of myself, out of my control. However, the experience of making a decision is introspectively my decision and my action.

Since neither my reason nor my desire is the faculty behind these decisions, I postulate a third faculty. Normally, this faculty is called the "will". I identify with this will as much as, and perhaps more than, my reason and my desires, and it is clearly part of me. This "will" is introspectively free, as it is determined neither by the reason, nor the desires, nor by any external cause. Instead, the decision is my own, undetermined decision.

Free will should be the default position as it is the position that best approximates our introspective evidence. Deterministic positions are either derived from Nineteenth-Century physics or from introspective question-begging. Threfore, until some better argument against free will presents itself, we should believe that we have free will.


Johnny-Dee said...

Nice post. I too favor the evidence of introspection as having immediate primacy in the free-will debate. I'm also a strong believer in libertarian agency. Typically I encounter two other types of counterarguments that attempt to undermine indeterminism. (1) There is no intelligible way to understand what an indeterminate cause would be; and (2) Even granting indeterminism, that only makes these choices arbitrary and random, not "free."

I think these objections can be answered. Although, I wonder if they are a priori or a posteriori objections?

You've got a good blog going here Aristotle. I'm a little curious about who you are and what school you are attending, but I will respect your privacy. If you are a good blogger, it doesn't matter where you come from!

SillyBahrainiGirl said...

this is a great idea..
to store things which pop up in ones mind on a blog for safe keeping ;)

may come in handy one day

anthony said...

great blog

carrie said...

i want to get a phD in philosophy, too. who knows.

Kyle said...

Nice article. I know this sounds rude (and is not meant to be), but I can't help but ask:

When you consider this subject for a while, do you ever feel like a snake eating its tail?

Daniel said...

Thank you everyone for your compliments on my blog. I'm very glad that people are enjoying it. Unfortunately, I need to stay anonymous for now due to a proliferation of googling radicals on campus who use out-of-context comments to smear people with whom they disagree.


I think those are both a priori objections, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so quick to dismiss the possibility.

(1) confuses causation with logical syllogisms, especially modus ponens or "If P, then Q". I think it's Hume's fault, since he thought causation was not a real idea, so must be equivalent to necessary connection. However, with a more Aristotelian conception of motive cause, "Whatever provides the motion", the question "Why did something move?" is equivalent to "What moved it?". Even if the movee might not have moved when it encountered the mover (i.e. it is an indeterminate cause), the mover is what provided the motion so the question of causation is settled.

(2) is answered introspectively by the fact that we do not experience ourselves moving dissociatively at random, but of ourselves choosing. Further, we do move for reasons, just not determining reasons. If someone asks me why I smoked the cigarette, I say it was for pleasure. If they asked me then why I smoked the cigarette rather than preserved my health, I would say that I don't think it adds anything more to the first question.


I ate my tail a long time ago. I'm working on the back of my head right now :)

Anonymous said...

When I introspect, I cannot help but think that my behaviour is a determined product of my beliefs and desires, which are themselves a product of the confluence of my human nature and my human conditions. Do you have an argument to show me that I am wrong? If instrospection is your only evidence, then you are forced to stipulate that your introspective experience is right and mine is wrong, which is precisely what you accuse your opponent of.

Anonymous said...

In response to anonymous:

If you assume that 'introspection' is a matter of just 'looking into' oneself (as the etymology might suggest), then you'll probably be inclined to think of it as infallible so far as it goes. Whether or not there is any truth to the deliverances of your introspection is another matter, but you can't be wrong about what you see. Or so it goes if we think of introspection on the model of sensation or perception.

A bit of reflection shows, though, that there really isn't any such thing as 'introspection' in the literal sense. When I think about my own action and deliberation as I experience it, I'm not 'looking' at anything, and I'm certainly not looking 'into' anything. I'm just reflecting on what it is that I do when I deliberate and act. Of course, I have something of a privileged access to that, but nothing like the infallibility we might attribute to sensations. So you can be wrong.

But are you wrong if you think that your reflection on your own action and deliberation shows that you are determined by your beliefs and desires, which are themselves a product of your human nature and your human condition? One thing to notice is that a libertarian can just about accept that description. I say 'just about' because most libertarians won't be happy with the word 'determined.' That's alright, though, because nobody should be happy with your formulation at all, since it's too vague to have any determinate content.

Presumably, your reflection on your own action and deliberation suggests that whenever you act, you always act on the basis of desires that are themselves related to beliefs in various ways. No libertarian I've ever heard of would disagree. To get a determinist thesis out of that description, you'll have to add that you have no control over the beliefs and desires that you form and that 'acting on the basis of' desires and beliefs means that your behavior is caused by them. As descriptions of what goes on in deliberation and action, neither claim is very plausible. For beliefs and desires to cause your behavior, you need to be able to distinguish the mental state of, say, desiring X plus believing that doing Y will achieve X, and actually doing Y. But just what is the event in which, say, I desire to use the right word and arrive at the belief that 'event' is the right word? In some circumstances, there may be such an event -- after all, I may have to think about the right word. Usually, though, I don't think about the right words at all, but just produce them. It makes little sense to say that I didn't choose the words, or that I didn't choose them because I thought they were right, or that I didn't desire to use the right words. Yet there also doesn't seem to be any distinct 'mental event' of my desiring-to-use-the-word-and-forming-the-belief-that-this-is-the-right-one.
Furthermore, if the belief-desire complex is supposed to cause my action, then having that belief and that desire should be sufficient for me to perform that action. Yet surely you can think of all sorts of situations in which you wanted X and believed that doing Y would get you X, but didn't do Y. The fact that more beliefs and desires explain why you didn't Y in those circumstances doesn't show that they are causes either. If causes are to be deterministic, then they need to be sufficient conditions for their alleged effects. Beliefs and desires are not, as a rule, sufficient conditions for the actions that they explain.

So the causal portion of determinism fails, at least as an account of the phenomenology of action. So too does the no-control element of the thesis. You may say that the ability to control your actions is never a feature of your experience of your own agency, but I doubt that you could say it sincerely. The experience of control just is the sense that you can, right now, keep reading this post or stop, if you choose to do so. You might say 'but I would choose on the basis of desires and beliefs,' and I would agree, except that we've already shown that desires and beliefs can't, as a rule, be deterministic causes of your action.

For all that, what you and I do may be as determined as the behavior of water in sub-freezing temperatures. Simple attention to the phenomenology of agency and the language that we use to describe these things shows, though, that your claims to discover yourself determined 'on introspection' are, in fact, false.

Anonymous said...

sounds like a complicated version of 'which came first, the chicken or the egg?'

mye education was limited to the 10th grade so what do i know? lots'o big words though...