Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Compatibilist Notion of Free Will

Russell Blackford has written an interesting post which has spawned an interesting discussion about free will. Russell's confused a few of his interlocutors and says he feels a little bit alone in his neck of the internets. Since I think I agree with his view of free will and the related discourse, I've decided to throw in my two cents.

To say we make a choice or a decision is merely to say that we adopt one plan among given alternatives. This does not imply that the alternatives were ever physically possible, nor does it imply that the decision could have been other than what it was. All it implies is that (1) there are representations of plans as options for future behavior, (2) one of those representations becomes an active part of our behavior (as an intention) and (3) the representation of options as such plays a causal role in the production of the intention (by satisfying some conditions which we normally think of as desires/needs). There need not be a "free" act which takes us from (1) to (2). There simply need be (1), (2) and (3). That's enough for there to be a decision/choice.

I think that's the sort of thing Russell has in mind. It fits our normal talk of decisions/choices and it doesn't require any indeterminacy in the universe. And I agree with Russell that any stipulation of an uncaused act which would presumably get us from (1) to (2) would not make our decisions any more real. There is no benefit (explanatory or otherwise) to postulating such an uncaused event. It would make our decisions free in a particular way, but it would also make them utterly arbitrary. We do have the ability to make more or less arbitrary decisions, but our sense of responsibility and accountability certainly does not depend on, and would not even slightly be enhanced by, an utterly arbitrary decision-making process.

When we say "I could have done otherwise," I suppose what we normally mean is that we did not feel strongly compelled to act one way rather than another. Or, if we did feel so compelled, we regard that compulsion as the result of a prior decision which was not compulsory. So we are admitting to a degree of weakness in the conditions which define our decision-making processes. This entails a degree of freedom with respect to a particular variety of causal influence--namely, freedom with respect to our own wants/needs. So maybe free will, in common terms, is just the ability to choose without compulsion--that is, without the feeling that we have to choose one option rather than another.