Is Free Will Incredible?

To some extent we’re all ideologues, at least in a passive sense. We’re all reluctant to let go of beliefs central to our worldview, even if the evidence is against us. Belief in god is notoriously difficult to abandon if it’s played a central role in your life, giving you reassurance and meaning. You don’t have to have been an active ideologue – a “blindly partisan advocate or adherent” of religion – for admitting you’re wrong to be a wrenching process. As Julia Sweeney documents so tellingly, letting go of god can wreak psychological havoc until a stable new worldview is established.

The same is true of our beliefs concerning the soul and free will, maybe more so. Many people, often without realizing it, are committed to the implicit supernaturalism of supposing that something about them transcends causality when they make choices. It’s only when conventional wisdom about contra-causal free will is overtly challenged, as it is more and more these days by neuroscience, that people suddenly discover they’re wedded to a belief that can’t withstand scrutiny. Then the often difficult process of cognitive restructuring begins.

For those who have made a career of defending contra-causal free will, such as Tibor Machan, such restructuring would of course be doubly difficult. Machan is author of Initiative: Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000), a lengthy defense of philosophical libertarianism, the thesis that human agents have the choice-making power to initiate causal chains de novo. He says our choices aren’t completely explicable by appealing to antecedent and surrounding conditions, which means that human freedom is opposed to, or incompatible with, the thesis of determinism.

But Machan’s more recent writings suggest that he’s feeling considerable pressure on this incompatibilist view of free will. In a December, 2006 piece on making new years resolutions, he admitted that the idea that the will is independent of causation is increasingly under attack. Addiction researchers seek to understand why people get hooked, parents seek to understand why their kids misbehave, and criminologists seek to understand the causes of crime. In each case, the quest to understand behavior conflicts with the idea that people just choose their actions from some uncaused vantage point, the essence of contra-causal free will.

Now, on, Machan poses the core question about such freedom: “Is Free Will Incredible?” Given his life-long commitment to philosophical libertarianism, he must of course answer no, but being otherwise naturalistic in his worldview, he has the devil of a time saying why the answer shouldn’t be yes: of course it’s incredible! As in his earlier article, he admits the naturalistic tide is running against him. The natural and social sciences all want explanations, and where explanations go incompatibilist free will – the mystery at the heart of human choice – must necessarily retreat. No surprise, then, that he concedes he’s fighting an “uphill battle” in defending the widespread assumption of uncaused or self-caused human choices.

Machan’s personal struggle mirrors the larger culture war between naturalism and supernaturalism in which the concept of the soul and its supernatural freedom is at stake. The reason he and so many others hold on for dear life to the soul (although since he’s “no mystic” he wouldn’t call it that) is, as the first paragraph of his article illustrates, the traditional Western folk concepts of moral responsibility, rationality and dignity are intertwined with the idea that we stand above natural cause and effect. The deterministic thesis that people are fully caused to become who they are and act as they do, the operating assumption in scientific explanations of  behavior, obviously contradicts this idea. The conflict thus boils down to choosing between science and commonsense dualism about the self and its freedom and responsibility.

Part of Machan’s case in favor of free will (and against determinism) is that if we don’t transcend causation in some respect, then we’re not in a position to objectively assess arguments and evidence. He believes real rationality requires that we be free from determinism in reaching true conclusions about the world, otherwise we’d be “hard-wired to think in certain ways.”  But there’s really no conflict between rationality and determinism, since being undetermined in our assessment of evidence and logic would only insert an element of randomness in the process. We wouldn’t, after all, want to be free to choose to follow (or not) the rules of evidence and logic; rather we rationally want to always assiduously obey them in judging what’s true and false, whether it’s syllogisms or testable hypotheses. If it happens we’re determined (hard-wired, culturally trained, or as is likely the case, both) to think logically, to respect the evidence of our senses, and to seek out the opinions of reliable experts, that’s a good thing, not something to rebel against. Libertarian free will of the sort Machan wants would make us less, not more rational. For elaborations of this point, see Supernaturalism and Explanation and Is Naturalism Self-Defeating?.

Machan also says that

...evidence about parts of the brain suggesting that our habits are innate is a bit fishy—all of that may well be a matter of correlation, not causation. Sure, ongoing practices leave traces in the brain, that's to be expected, and these are likely to become factors in the development of habits. But the initial practices could well have been a matter of free choice.

Here he contrasts free choice with whatever isn’t a matter of how learning happens in the physical brain, suggesting that there’s something non-physical or undetermined about the I that chooses the initial practices. But as a self-declared non-mystic, he has to specify how these choices come to pass, otherwise he’s indeed appealing to a mystery. Machan is caught between the naturalistic demand for explanatory transparency, which inevitably leads to scientific cause and effect understanding at the macro level of human behavior, and his desire for an agent that transcends cause and effect. Something’s got to give, and it won’t be science.

Although he bravely concludes that “there is a central element of freedom in human existence that is impossible to deny,” the fact is the denial is growing all around us. More and more scientists and philosophers, as Machan acknowledges, are publicly announcing that we don’t have contra causal free will, and they do so on excellent logical and empirical grounds. Further, and crucially, philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Joshua Greene and Patricia Churchland are engaged in reconfiguring our concepts of freedom, choice, dignity and responsibility so that we can in good conscience accept this denial. We can relax about repudiating libertarian freedom since these revised concepts, which have long-standing historical precedents, give us everything we need. True, we have to abandon the idea we can take ultimate credit and blame for ourselves and our acts, but that isn’t needed for compassionate and effective systems of responsibility, creativity and control. In fact it’s what largely stands in the way.

But of course Machan is championing what most people, wedded to the supernatural soul and its power, want to hear, namely that we are exceptions to determinism. So it’s likely that in the short run he’ll find considerable support for taking the contrarian line against mainstream science. But that doesn’t make him right. If and when Machan finally lets go of free will he’ll discover, as did Julia Sweeney, that things don’t fall apart, rather they come together quite nicely.

TWC, May 2007

Juno Walker at Letters From Le Vrai also comments on Machan.