Paul Bloom’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece certainly has the virtue of raising the issues – or some of them – starkly. Bloom outright denies that we have free will, though he eventually moves on to describe a position that tends to undermine this very forthright claim. First, the stark denial:
Common sense tells us that we exist outside of the material world—we are connected to our bodies and our brains, but we are not ourselves material beings, and so we can act in ways that are exempt from physical law. For every decision we make—from leaning over for a first kiss, to saying “no” when asked if we want fries with that—our actions are not determined and not random, but something else, something we describe as chosen.
This is what many call free will, and most scientists and philosophers agree that it is an illusion. Our actions are in fact literally predestined, determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe, long before we were born, and, perhaps, by random events at the quantum level. We chose none of this, and so free will does not exist.
This most definitely has the virtue of clarity. For Bloom, “free will” means a rather spooky ability to act in ways that are exempt from physical laws and physical causes. We don’t have this ability, Bloom claims (and I, for one, don’t doubt him). Therefore, free will does not exist.
And yet, something exists, Bloom thinks, something that lies in the conceptual vicinity of free will (if he doesn’t think it does, then why bring it up in such a context?). The “something” is a set of capacities that we do have:
Many scholars do draw profound implications from the rejection of free will. Some neuroscientists claim that it entails giving up on the notion of moral responsibility. There is no actual distinction, they argue, between someone who is violent because of a large tumor in his brain and a neurologically normal premeditated killer—both are influenced by forces beyond their control, after all—and we should revise the criminal system accordingly. Other researchers connect the denial of free will with the view that conscious deliberation is impotent. We are mindless robots, influenced by unconscious motivations from within and subtle environmental cues from without; these entirely determine what we think and do. To claim that people consciously mull over decisions and think about arguments is to be in the grips of a prescientific conception of human nature.
I think those claims are mistaken. In any case, none of them follow from determinism. Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought.
He concludes, tellingly: “It is wrong, then, to think that one can escape from the world of physical causation—but it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?”
Thus, Bloom denies that we possess free will – which he imagines to be something spooky – while at the same time claiming (surprise!) that conscious deliberation and rational thought are real, that conscious deliberation is not impotent, and that we need not give up on the notion of moral responsibility. Frankly, if this is a denial of free will, then denial of free will is proving to be a very thin doctrine. It means only denying the existence of something metaphysically extravagant (and arguably not even coherent) that many of us were not in the slightest inclined to believe existed in the first place. Conversely, it does not mean denying anything that we might fear is illusory when told that we lack free will: in particular, that our desires and deliberations are efficacious in bringing about our choices, which can, at least in a large class of cases, be efficacious in shaping our lives and aspects of the world that we live in.
In fact, Bloom is not denying the existence of free will, as most philosophers understand it, at all. Nor is he necessarily denying the existence of free will as most ordinary people understand it, given what experimental data we have so far on how the folk actually imagine free will.
I don’t deny that some people might think of a spooky capacity to defy physical laws when they think of free will. This does seem to be one conception of free will that is Out There in the Zeitgeist, and some theologians seem to trade on it in various ways. But it is not evident that it is either the philosophical conception of free will or the most common conception among the folk. It’s actually difficult to see what it could add to my life if I had this spooky capacity: even if I could defy physical laws, free will does not make much sense unless it involves the ability to act on my own desires and viewpoint. But there will always be a story as to how I came to have the desire-set and viewpoint that I actually have (even if a god created me with these a few seconds ago), and that story will never be one in which I chose my collection of desires and beliefs ab initio. Even God, if he existed, could never do that.
If I chose my current desire-set, my choice as to what desire-set I wanted must have been based on an earlier desire-set that I had, and this is not the sort of thing that can go on in an endless sequence. So even an ability to defy physical laws would not give me a free will that is ultimate, or goes all the way down. Ultimate, or all-the-way-down, free will is ruled out for separate reasons. So how, exactly, do I end up being any more free, even if I have a power to violate the laws of physics? It’s very strange.
Bloom concedes that we have certain things that we want, such as the ability to deliberate, and for the actions based on our deliberations to be (to an extent) efficacious. The power that he denies us (and I agree that we have no such power) does not get us a deeper freedom, and really does not (as far as I can see) make sense at all. I’ll settle for the mundane, yet impressive, capacities that Bloom grants me … and I suggest that you do likewise.
Finally, there might still be independent worries about whether we can hold people (fully?) morally responsible for their actions. But that depends on different considerations. These worries would arise whether we had the power to violate physical laws or not, as long as the observable facts about, say, human socialisation remain true. Once again, there is always a causal story as to how I ended up with the desire-set that I have … and how some other, perhaps less pleasant, person ended up with her desire-set. That fact might shake some of our notions of freedom, desert, and responsibility, but it has little to do with the kind of causal determinism that Bloom evidently has in mind.
There will be some more posts in this series, not least to respond to various objections and other points. But that concludes my initial responses to the six pieces in The Chronicle.