The Reading Room
Free Will Hiding In Plain Sight
1qq`Some authors tend to deny the existence of free will because we are not Epicurean atoms or Nietzschean Ubermen with unconstrained freedom. We’re unable to defy the physical and social world in which we’re indelibly embedded. We aren’t able to do whatever we want, or step outside of our linguistic frameworks, or defy causation.
Likewise, many analytic philosophers aim for naturalism: demystifying freedom of agency in what many of its practitioners regard as a world best explained by, and reducible to, the hard sciences. Explanations of conscious agency attempt its reduction to, if not elimination by, non-conscious constituents and processes studied by such fields as physics and neurobiology.
There is no good reason to suppose we are, or could be, free in the Epicurean or Nietzschean sense. But neither is there good reason to presume that conscious agency needs a reductive explanation. Nor is there good reason to assume that many human actions, because caused and constrained, are thereby necessitated to happen by prior conditions. We have a preponderance of evidence for free will as executive cognitive function. Now perhaps the best arguments and evidence will yet vindicate the truth of determinism, as some already believe, but we needn’t treat it as the default presumption for which free will requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, subjective experience provides strong evidence that the default presumption should run the other way.
Of course, we can put on our philosopher hats and question whether we are really free in a deep sense, rather than it merely seeming like we’re free. But does being versus seeming matter in the end? I sense we all use the language of “freedom” and “choice” and “free will” without scare quotes, and with straight faces, in our daily lives. This is because we make so many choices that we often don’t notice the process, much as we don’t notice ambient noise when it’s always in the background.
John Hasnas says “Look around!” to those who argue anarchic institutions are impossible or don’t exist. I say the same to those who doubt we have any meaningful personal freedom permeating our everyday lives through the countless conscious and unconscious choices we each make.
In normal circumstances, most of us can choose to make an effort (or not), help a neighbor (or not), get out of bed (or not), set up a plan for saving money (or not), etc. We have a commonsense conception of choice that seems non-mysterious when we think of free will in terms of examples like these.
Some may maintain that this freedom is illusory. Maybe they’re correct–we lack space here to go into the metaphysical weeds. Nonetheless, views such as compatibilism (versions of which are held by canonical authors such as Hobbes and Locke) hold that we are meaningfully free even if hard determinism is true, provided the factors which make us behave the way we do are also reflective of our own normative standards and motives. But we shouldn’t so quickly assume compatibilism if there is causation without necessitation (which some theories of quantum physics suggest). This conception of free choice is non-mysterious if we don’t insist that our only possibilities are deterministic causation or none at all.
Even if we are wholly determined and only feel free, however, I’m not sure what difference this would make in our daily lives. A handful of philosophers might have an existential crisis on hearing the news, but such crises are a stock-in-trade for philosophers of a certain temperament.
Regardless, some might concede the above yet claim that the sort of freedom outlined here is boring, humdrum, even…ick, bourgeois. Fair enough. I find it inspiring for two main reasons. The first highlights the role we each have in making momentous choices for ourselves and others, loud and quiet choices, big deals such as: choosing a job or romantic partner, deciding where to live, writing a hit song, overcoming a debilitating addiction, getting in better shape and staying there, etc.
None of the above should imply that choice is only about sheer effort and willpower, though it often involves this. The significance of many praiseworthy choices may simply lay in the fact that one chooses wisely (in the right way, in the right circumstances) when one is free to do otherwise.
Of course, most of our choices by definition can’t be momentous in and of themselves. But as discussed in my book, many humdrum choices can add up to a life led momentously (or not). Even what is mundane when viewed in isolation can form part of a whole with the emergent property of being a praiseworthy achievement. One brushstroke isn’t a masterpiece by itself, but thousands of well-placed strokes comprise the finest Impressionist paintings.