Friday, August 28, 2015

Confusion Over Compatibilism and Determinism


In a recent post, I discussed the logical incoherency of libertarian free will.  Some of the commentary that followed included discussion of scientific findings that provide strong evidence for the deterministic nature of human decision-making.  Papalinton cited some articles that discuss neurological evidence of the illusory nature of libertarian free will.  Keith Rozumalski dismisses the neurological evidence and counters that many materialists are compatibilists, apparently without realizing that the neurological evidence for determinism is entirely consistent with compatibilism, which is, after all, a form of determinism.  Compatibilism is the philosophical position that despite the deterministic nature of our decision-making processes, we are still responsible for our own choices, as long as those choices are not coerced.

It is apparent that this discussion has split into two tracks, with one talking about evidence for determinism, and the other focusing more on the moral aspect of free will, but at the same time, thinking that that is a refutation of determinism, which it is not.  Finally, Keith cited a recent finding that many peer-reviewed studies in psychology could not be replicated.  It turns out that one of those studies related to beliefs about free will.  Keith mistakenly proclaims:
So, this great proof that free will is an illusion, which was very similar to the one you mentioned, isn't even reproducible. This just bolsters my point that there is no defeater for my intuition that I freely make decisions.
There are a few important points to be noted in this article:

First, this is a good opportunity to get in a plug for science.  The article Keith cited is an example of how science works.  As I have said many times, every scientific theory or finding is tentative, and subject to being disproved.  Of course there will always be examples of scientific studies that employ faulty methodology, or the data is faked or misrepresented, or there is some other flaw that invalidates it, or it simply can't be replicated.  In the long run, those flaws will be exposed.  The great strength of scientific method is that it is self-correcting.  That's what sets it apart from any other philosophical endeavor.  For example, no matter how badly flawed a theistic philosophical argument might be, there is no retraction, and no corrective mechanism.  If somebody disputes it, that only results in a difference of opinion, not a movement within the broader community to expunge the flawed work.

Second, the findings in this article do not disprove any of those studies.  At best, they call the methodology into doubt.  It will require further research and experimentation to either confirm or reject any of those studies.  The most likely eventual outcome is that some of those studies may be withdrawn, and others will stand.  That's science at work.

Third, only one of the studies called into question was related to free will.  But it had nothing to do with confirming or refuting determinism.  Rather, it was a study about the psychological effects of believing in determinism.  So even if this study is rejected as being invalid, that does absolutely nothing to weaken the scientific evidence for determinism, or to bolster the position of free will advocates.

Fourth, there are still many scientific findings that support the case for determinism, and they haven't been called into question.  Some of this evidence was pointed out by Papalinton, but there's much more.  In fact the evidence for materialistic determinism is so strong, that there is very little dispute within the scientific community about it.  It's rather like evolution theory.  Plenty of evidence to support the scientific consensus, and it's mostly people outside the scientific community who don't understand it and still try to insist that some supernatural explanation works better.

Finally, I need to repeat to Keith that he seems to be confused.  He associates compatibilsm with free will, and determinism with fatalism.  Since this kind of confusion seems to be common among theists, I'll try to explain once again.  The term "free will" has different meanings.  Most theists believe they have libertatian free will, which implies a lack of material causation.  The believer in libertatian free will thinks that a person can make choice A or choice B with nothing in his brain or his body determining what that choice will be.  Given the identical circumstances and brain states, he can choose A one time, and B another time, because it is only the immaterial soul that makes the choice.  The determinist thinks that circumstances and brain states determine the outcome.  So, given the identical circumstances and brain states, he will always choose A. 

There are some, especially theists, who believe that determinism implies a lack of moral responsibility.  To them, it seems that if if determinism is true, then we are all just billiard balls being knocked around by external forces beyond our control, and lacking any morality or responsibility for what we do.  This is referred to as "fatalism".  The fatalist believes that outcomes are fixed, and he has no power to change them, and no responsibility for what happens.  Very few people are fatalists.  But most actual determinists have a different perspective.  They understand that we are more than just billiard balls.  We have big brains capable of thinking about the consequences of our choices, and we choose not to abdicate responsibility for those choices.  Yes, our choices are determined by our brain states, but that doesn't mean that we have no control.  Because we can contemplate our actions, we can still take moral responsibility for what we do.  In doing so, we can and do influence our own brain states.  This is referred to as "compatibilism".  Compatibilism is determinism that is compatible with moral responsibility.  Is this free will?  In a sense, it is.  As long as we are not coerced, we are free to let our own brain states make the choice.  But that's still determinism.  And it is definitely not fatalism.  I discussed this topic in an earlier post, but it bears repeating.

In this discussion, I have picked on a single individual who has a confused understanding of determinism and free will.  But it is quite common for theists to have this misunderstanding.  That's why you always hear theists saying ridiculous things like "atheists have no morality" or "materialism is just matter in motion".  They deny that the thinking brain can influence our behavior or make moral choices.  But the evidence still says otherwise.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, you're being very uncharitable, to me in particular and theists in general, by ascribing confusion to me when the terms we were discussing were never formally defined and the fact that I'm reacting to how I think that you and Papa are defining the terms. Perhaps, instead of accusing me of being confused about what compatabilism entails, you should have done some research on the definition of compatibilism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, "Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Because free will is typically taken to be a necessary condition of moral responsibility, compatibilism is sometimes expressed as a thesis about the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism." So, obviously I'm not the one who is confused. Your confusion is arising from the fact that you're taking my meaning of free will to mean libertarian free will, which is certainly not the case.

    I also never said that determinism leads to fatalism, in fact I said, "Even though my predilection for pizza lead to my decision to choose pizza, it doesn't follow that fatalism is true or that I didn't freely decide to eat pizza." I'm simply reacting to some hard determinist's fallacious assertion that hard determinism leads to fatalism.

    I also need to point out that, again, since we didn't formally define our terms, I was responding to Papa who seems to be arguing for hard determinism--that no person has ever been able to make a free decision and be responsible for their actions. First of all, I don't think that libertarian free will has been shown to be scientifically or philosophically false. Secondly, my point is that even if these experiments do show that libertarian free will is false, it doesn't follow that hard determinism is true, as I find compatibilism to be very persuasive.

    My overarching point is that there is a cause of our decisions and that people can be responsible for their decisions--that there is no evidence to show that hard determinism is true. That to me is ultimately what matters. As I said before, compatibilism is completely, umm, compatible with theism.

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  2. Keith,

    I'm sorry if I misinterpret the things you say, but you keep saying things that seem inconsistent to me. For example, you say that the soul is what makes decisions, and you say the the soul is its own mover. That's an argument for libertarian free will. It denies that conditions and circumstances determine our choice, but it is the discretion of the soul that independently and freely chooses. That's libertarian free will.

    On the other hand, you also say that conditions and circumstances do guide your choices, and despite that, you are still free to choose and responsible for your choices. OK. That's compatibilist free will, but it's also determinism.

    Yes, I have looked at the definitions of compatibilism, and it fully agrees with everything I have said, so why do you seem to be arguing for something different if you also agree with it?

    So I'm confused about what you believe, and each time you say something ambiguous, it adds to my confusion. When you say "Even though my predilection for pizza lead to my decision to choose pizza, it doesn't follow that fatalism is true or that I didn't freely decide to eat pizza," after I have already explained the difference between compatibilist determinism and fatalism, you are agreeing with what I said, but it sounds like you are arguing against me.

    It sounds like much of this confusion would be cleared up if we both were careful to use terminology that is unambiguous. When you say "free will" I never know if you mean libertarian or compatibilist free will. You seem to move between them with ease, but they are very different.

    "My overarching point is that there is a cause of our decisions and that people can be responsible for their decisions--that there is no evidence to show that hard determinism is true. That to me is ultimately what matters. As I said before, compatibilism is completely, umm, compatible with theism."
    - So you agree with me that determinism is true, and that we still have moral responsibility for our actions. I agree that this position can be compatible with theism, but not with the theistic notion of libertarian free will - in particular, not with the notion of a soul that is "its own mover".

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  3. im-skeptical wrote: "I'm sorry if I misinterpret the things you say, but you keep saying things that seem inconsistent to me. For example, you say that the soul is what makes decisions, and you say the the soul is its own mover. That's an argument for libertarian free will. It denies that conditions and circumstances determine our choice, but it is the discretion of the soul that independently and freely chooses. That's libertarian free will."

    I could have been more clear about what I was doing. In the section you're referring to I was attempting to explain what Aquinas' beliefs on free will are (or at least my understanding of them). Those beliefs are not necessarily my beliefs.

    im-skeptical wrote: "On the other hand, you also say that conditions and circumstances do guide your choices, and despite that, you are still free to choose and responsible for your choices. OK. That's compatibilist free will, but it's also determinism."

    Right, in that section I was explaining that even if determinism is true and libertarian free will is false, that hard determinism is not necessarily true and that we still can be responsible for making decisions.

    im-skeptical wrote: "So I'm confused about what you believe, and each time you say something ambiguous, it adds to my confusion. When you say "Even though my predilection for pizza lead to my decision to choose pizza, it doesn't follow that fatalism is true or that I didn't freely decide to eat pizza," after I have already explained the difference between compatibilist determinism and fatalism, you are agreeing with what I said, but it sounds like you are arguing against me."

    Well, first I was trying to explain what Aquinas' believed. Second, as I said before, I haven't fully committed to either libertarian free will or compatibilism, although I do find myself leaning towards compatibilism. What I am saying is that there is no good reason to think that hard determinism is true.

    In actuality, I don't think that we are disagreeing with each other. I'm not sure about Papa, though, as he sounds like a hard determinist, but out of fairness, I could just be misunderstanding him.

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    1. im-skeptical wrote: "It sounds like much of this confusion would be cleared up if we both were careful to use terminology that is unambiguous. When you say "free will" I never know if you mean libertarian or compatibilist free will. You seem to move between them with ease, but they are very different."

      I completely agree with you. This is a good reminder about how important it is to define terms. That's why philosophers are so fanatical about definitions. I shouldn't have assumed that you would know which sense of free will I was talking about based on the context--I should have been more clear.

      im-skeptical wrote: "So you agree with me that determinism is true, and that we still have moral responsibility for our actions. I agree that this position can be compatible with theism, but not with the theistic notion of libertarian free will - in particular, not with the notion of a soul that is "its own mover".

      Pretty much. To be fair to free will libitarians, I think that most would say that our tastes and beliefs play an important part in decisions, it's just that the ultimate cause of the decision is the self. It's a very difficult question, but it seems to me that our tastes, beliefs and preferences are part of who we are, and are what causes our decisions. Take the example of my father who smoked a pipe for many years. Clearly he was drawn to smoking and was even chemically addicted to the nicotine in the tobacco. However, one day, he broke the cycle of addiction by quitting cold turkey. To me, this was a free decision, but I think that the compatibilist could make a good case that his concerns over his health are what lead him to decide to quit smoking.

      I think it is obviously true that if compatibilism is true then both libertarian free will and hard determinism are false. We both agree that having libertarian free will is not necessary condition for theism to be true. Libertarian free will is also not an integral part of Aquinas' arguments for God's existence.

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    2. I don't have the courage to be a 'hard determinist'. But I suspect that is probably because I don't have the intellectual fortitude to do so. I am unable to shake off the intuitive sense that I do actually make choices. The evidence, what there is of it, is pointing to determinism, that whatever decisions we make seem to have already been made or determined within our unconscious mind even before we consciously perceive it. Whether one plugs for 'soft determinism' or 'hard determinism' is probably irrelevant, but it seems libertarian free will is increasingly less likely a viable option.

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    3. "In actuality, I don't think that we are disagreeing with each other."
      - I think for the most part, we are, and I'm glad we were able to reach that understanding.

      "Clearly he was drawn to smoking and was even chemically addicted to the nicotine in the tobacco. However, one day, he broke the cycle of addiction by quitting cold turkey. To me, this was a free decision, but I think that the compatibilist could make a good case that his concerns over his health are what lead him to decide to quit smoking."
      - I myself was addicted to tobacco at one time, and I stopped cold turkey, too. I'll tell you what caused me to do it. My very young son asked me why I smoke. I replied to him, "I don't know. It'll probably kill me some day." And he started crying. I never smoked another cigarette.

      "I think it is obviously true that if compatibilism is true then both libertarian free will and hard determinism are false."
      - Agreed, sort of. But I don't like the term 'hard determinism'. Billiard balls are subject to hard determinism. What makes us different is that we have the ability to consider our own actions, and so we are not merely being knocked around. We have something to say about what happens.

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  4. This is curious. Why should any any indication that the subconscious mind determines an action prior to our conscious mind rule out free will? All you've done is to move the arena of choice into the subconscious. (Not that I'm conceding this point, but I fail to see where it's a problem for free will.)

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    1. That's a good question. It's just part of the evidence. Theists generally believe that their deliberative process comes from the immaterial soul. Deliberation means thinking. You hear them speak of "introspection" as a basis for their belief in this soul. And deliberation or thinking is what they have available for introspection. If decisions are made without (or prior to) thinking (which is what the evidence indicates), then that is one less reason for the theist to believe that this soul is involved in the process.

      This says nothing about free will, unless you think that free will results from the deliberative process (which most theists do).

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