We come to the fifth of six pieces about free will recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education – this time from Owen D. Jones, who ponders the relationship between constraints on our volition and the operation of the law. Jones has a forthcoming book, Law and Neuroscience, which I look forward to reading when it appears in 2013.
While Jones’s project certainly sounds interesting, my feeling is that the article doesn’t take determinism with sufficient seriousness. Perhaps this is partly to do with restrictions of space, but Jones never really responds to arguments based on comprehensive causal determinism. He acknowledges that there are constraints on our choices, but does not appear to consider the possibility that our choices are absolutely determined by the states of our brains at the particular times when choices take place. Consider, for example, this passage:
Evolutionary processes pre-equip brains in all species with some information-processing predispositions. Generally speaking, these increase the probabilities that some combinations of environmental circumstances—immediate physical and social factors, contexts, and the like—will yield one subset of possible (and generally nondisastrous) behaviors rather than others.
Okay, so the idea here is that the range of choices available to creatures like us – with an evolutionary history, some kind of evolved species psychology, plus individual socialisation, plus simply the obvious constraints of circumstances – is rather limited. In any situation involving a human choice, there is only a narrow range of possibilities as to how she will end up acting. Actually, I doubt that anyone denies this if I express it in such general and vague terms.
However, current attacks on free will go much further. In essence, they suggest that the process of choosing is an illusion. This is supposedly because there is only one way that I can choose in any situation (at any three-dimensional cross-section of space-time, we might say). I must deliberate, if I do so at all, and choose in the way that corresponds to (or correlates with, or is identical to) a transformation in my brain state that is directed by exceptionless scientific laws. It’s not just that my possible choices will be constrained within certain boundaries established by human nature and personal nurture. Rather, there is one way that I will choose, and therefore only one way that I can choose. If it turned out that I (tenselessly) choose in some other way, then I have violated the laws of physics – something that I obviously cannot do. Thus, I have no power to make genuine choices, and free will is an illusion.
While the above is not a valid argument (it is relying on equivocations about the meaning of “can” and/or conflating the meanings of “can” and “will”), talk of constrained choices from evolutionary psychology and the like don’t do the apparent force of the argument full justice. In Jones’s defence, however, that is presumably not his intention. Perhaps he could say that he does not have to deal with every argument that is currently in the Zeitgeist, irrespective of how relevant or otherwise it might be to his own project. Still, I can imagine a lot of people who are interested in current debates about free will claiming that Jones misses the point … or at least that he misses their point.
Conversely, I can well imagine many people thinking that arguments based on causal determinism are missing the point. After all, philosophers have been prepared to entertain the possibility of causal determinism for a long time now – ever since classical antiquity. This is not a new idea to us at all. A common view, and one that I tend to share, is that arguments against free will based merely on causal determinism at the level of the brain, not on something more specific such as Freudian accounts of how far our own desires are supposedly alien to us, are either addressing the wrong question or are simply invalid.