Surprising oneself

I like to surprise myself. Sometimes life is a mystery novel, in which we wait with bated breath to see what it is that we will do. This only seems to apply in certain particular situations – mostly where the decision really doesn’t matter.

I live near the top of a hill and, approaching my house from the West or the South one has to climb that hill. There are several ways of doing that, but two main ones. As I climb the road next to the park on my bicycle I have the option of continuing up that road until I come to my street, and turning up that. Or I can turn earlier and climb up a side street instead. The climb along the side street is shorter but steeper. So when I’m coming home I have the choice of the shorter, steeper hill, or the longer, shallower – but also more dull – route.

As I climb towards the turn I wonder – which one shall I take? I could try to reason my way about it, making up lists of pros and cons in my head and weighing them up. But I don’t. Instead I wait to find out which I will do. The secret answer to the question is already there – perhaps buried deep inside my nervous system, or perhaps still awaiting some final external stimulus to tip the decision one way or the other – a breath of wind, a car passing by, a creak of the cranks. Who knows what it is that determines the final choice?

All I know is that, as I approach within about ten metres of the possible turn, I will start to know what has been decided. Sometimes I will know straightaway, and be able to revel in, or marvel at, the certainty of the decision for a second or so before the actual turn. Sometimes I trick myself though – I find myself thinking it has been decided that there will be no turn today, when all of a sudden, at the very last second, there I am turning the corner.

One might say that I like to keep myself guessing.

There is a strange feeling of irresponsibility about it, as if the decision were nothing to do with me. It happens sometimes too with little quips that I think of possibly contributing to a conversation. I see the sentence fully-formed in my mind, but do not know whether I will say it, because I do not know whether it will amuse my interlocutors. So I wait and see whether it gets said, by me. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. I never know which until I’ve already started talking, or the opportunity has passed. Why the difference? Nobody knows.

This may be all very interesting, but it would be less fun if it applied to decisions of significant moral importance. Fortunately, for me and, apparently, for most other people, it doesn’t. I think of Camus’ outsider, Meursault, looking at the man before him on the beach, at whom he is pointing a loaded, cocked pistol (for no good reason), and wondering whether he, Meursault, will pull the trigger. I have never been in a similar situation – one of the many advantages of not owning a gun – but I would hate to think that I could look on the question of which way I would decide on an issue of such significance, as something amusing, diverting, outside my control.

While one can make theoretical arguments that whether or not I will choose to do X is purely determined by pre-existing circumstances, there is nevertheless a powerful, nay dominant, feeling of being involved in the decision, of being in control of one’s actions, when the stakes are high. So it is for me at least. Perhaps that’s what was so disconcerting about Meursault – that he had no greater feeling of involvement in, or responsibility for, the decision to shoot the man than he would for a decision to take the shorter, steeper path up the hill, or to risk telling a lame joke.

I cannot like Meursault, but I do feel sorry for him. There but for the grace of God and all that. Perhaps that’s part of what Camus was trying to do. He dissolved the black and white certainties of good and evil that plagued the world at the time of his writing.

Andrew Kirk


Bondi Junction, December 2016

Choosing, without free will

The trouble with free will is not that there is no such thing, but rather that nobody has yet managed to say what sort of a thing it would hypothetically be, in a way that satisfies those that wish to believe in it.

One of the best-known definitions of free will is David Hume’s, which runs as follows (from ‘An enquiry concerning human understanding’. Section 8, part 1):

By liberty, then we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and in chains.

Ardent believers in free will (‘Libertarians’) reject this because it depicts us as purely at the mercy of the determinations of our will, rather than suggesting, as they would wish, that we are in some indefinable way in control of what we determine – that we control our will rather than our will controlling us.

A Libertarian typically wishes to say, in contradiction of Determinists, that the decisions we make are not even theoretically predictable based on a full description of the prior states of our brain, body and environment. But neither do they wish to say that those decisions are random, which would destroy any notion of responsibility for our actions. They wish the actions to be somehow caused, yet also uncaused. They wish it to be the case that the person ‘could have acted differently’.

This idea is hopelessly vague. First, it rests on the notion of cause, which is very difficult, yet tractable, as covered in my essay “What is a cause?”. But then we have the additional problems of deciding what is meant by ‘could have’ and ‘random’. ‘Random’ is a perennial difficulty. Nobody has yet come up with a satisfactory non-epistemological definition of randomness, as discussed in my essay “Some random thoughts on whether the world is random”.

The idea of ‘could have acted differently’ is also a major problem. Unless we are prepared to describe the action as one of a number of different possible random outcomes, the closest we can come to explaining this phrase is to say it means we can imagine the person having acted differently. But we can imagine many things that we know are impossible, so it is hard to see how imagination is helpful in this context.

I suspect that there is no possible definition of free will that would satisfy the Libertarians.

I further suspect that what determines our actions is the combination of our nature (genes) and our environment. There is no spooky metaphysical third factor that represents the act of ‘choice’. That opinion would make me a Determinist, except that Determinists have to deny that the world contains randomness and, since I deny that randomness is well-defined, I cannot say whether the world contains it.

But does such an opinion require me to believe that we don’t make choices in this world? That would seem an absurd conclusion, as we feel very strongly that we do make choices, all the time. Fortunately, it doesn’t require that.

Choosing is the process of discovering, through considering alternatives, what course of action you are going to follow. A Libertarian would say that the outcome of the process is neither predictable in advance, nor is it random. A Determinist would say that choosing is the process of discovering your destiny.

What happens when we choose an action is typically this. We think about all the alternative possible actions. We think about their consequences, and perhaps enumerate the good and bad consequences for each possible action. We consider how we feel about those consequences. Then we do the action that scores best against the values that are dominating our consciousness at that time. Hence, in short, we can say that:

Choosing is just the process of thinking about several alternative actions and then doing one of them.

The fact that the course of action may have been predetermined (as a Determinist would say it was) does not entail that the process of choosing – considering alternatives – was pointless. I considered the alternatives, and in the way that I did, because I am the type of person I am, because of my nature. And I chose the action I did because of my nature too. If I had not considered the alternatives I did then my nature would have been different, and my decision would likely have been different too.

Say I have a test at school that I very much want to pass. I will probably choose to study for the test. That choosing will involve considering the consequences of studying and of not studying, and comparing them. If I choose to study then I will probably pass. A Determinist would say that I was always going to pass, but that the reason I was always going to pass is that I was always going to study, and I was always going to do that because my brain is so constructed as to place a more positive assessment on the likely consequences of studying than on those of not studying. The ‘choosing’ to study, including the deliberation that precedes the choice, was an inevitable and necessary part of the process. So says the Determinist. But regardless of whether I agree with her on that, we can still both agree that I chose to study, in that I thought about the consequences of studying or not studying, and then studied.

Another example is being persuaded by an argument. Say I have been persuaded, by an ethical argument put to me by another, to become vegetarian. My choosing to become vegetarian is simply the process of my listening to the argument, considering it, especially the consequences of becoming or not becoming vegetarian, and then ceasing to eat meat.

While I was listening to the argument I was probably not aware which way I would choose. I may even have thought that I would remain omnivorous. A moment will come though, either while listening to the argument or in my subsequent reflection on it, when I realise that I will no longer eat meat. I realise that I have decided. That is the way it works for me (I can’t speak for others). My decisions are realisations. I just become aware that the decision is made. I do not decide to decide. If I did that I would have an infinite regress, because before I could do that I would need to decide to decide to decide, and before I could do that I would need to decide to decide to decide to decide, and so on.

The important feature of this example of a persuasive argument is that it counters the suggestion that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything, because everything is predetermined. If it is predetermined (as Determinists would suggest) then every decision is a consequence of the genes and environment of the person deciding, and putting a persuasive argument to that person is a significant element of that environment. Perhaps it was predetermined that I would make that argument, and that I would persuade the person. But I can imagine an alternative world in which the argument was not made – perhaps because I was not there – and the decision was different.

So I conclude that, regardless of whether a satisfactory definition of free will is possible, regardless of whether our minds work according to that definition, and regardless of whether everything is predetermined, we still make choices.

Perhaps that is ‘Compatibilism’, or perhaps there is more to Compatibilism than that. I don’t place much stock in categorising ideas by ‘isms’ so I’m never sure whether any of my ideas fall into any of them.

A brief coda: Another satellite of the free will idea, to which many people are attached, like the notion of ‘choosing’, is that of reasons. What is the reason that I chose a certain action?

This is trickier than ‘choosing’, because we rarely seem to have a single reason for choosing anything. Often there is a network of interconnected reasons that are clearly visible in the choosing process. But even in the simplest decisions, where there seems to be only one reason, there are actually more. Think of any simple decision you’ve made, and your ostensible reason for choosing it. Now consider whether you would still have chosen it if it was guaranteed to make you suffer a prolonged, agonising death within one year. Probably not! So do you not need to include, as an additional reason for choosing it, the fact that you had no reason to believe that it would make you suffer a prolonged, agonising death within one year? We could find countless other such reasons for any choice, however simple.

A reason for an action is in many ways like a cause, and we need to be very precise about our definitions if we want to speak completely unambiguously about our reasons for choosing an action. I would say that the full reason for a voluntary action is the complete set of our expectations regarding the consequences of the action. Looked at another way, I choose an action because it accords more strongly than any of the alternatives, with the values that are uppermost in my mind at the moment of deciding.

Many of the considerations in my “What is a cause” essay will apply. In practice though, one reason may stand out as particularly noteworthy and we may just mention that (“the reason I am fining you is that you were driving at twice the speed limit; and I won’t mention the additional reason that you weren’t in a fire engine racing to put out a fire, as I think we all know that”).

Given that there is so much vagueness about the reason for any action, I think it is reasonable to adopt the following approach, which I like because it is broadly consistent with the way minds work (or maybe just my mind. I don’t know about yours), and because it reflects the idea that we realise we have decided, rather than deciding to decide. It’s vague, erratic and anomalous, but no more so than any other notion of a single reason for a decision:

The ‘reason’ why I did a particular action is the last thing I thought about before I first realised that I was going to do it.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 24 August 2013

Free will vs Causality – Something has to give!

Many people believe that everything must have a cause. I argue elsewhere that the notion of cause is highly problematic, and either ambiguous or meaningless in most of its uses within philosophy. But let’s leave that aside, assume we know what a cause is, and consider where it leads.

If everything has a cause then all our actions have a cause. Say I lift my arm to hail a taxi. We might imagine a chain of causes, working backwards from the physical action of my arm, to nerve impulses, to brain commands, to brain processing (deciding do I really want a taxi? Do I want that taxi?), to sensory stimuli (seeing the taxi).

Hailing a taxi can happen with our brain entirely on auto-pilot. What about a more deliberate and conscious decision, one with grave moral repercussions? Consider the anti-hero Meursault in Camus’s novel L’Etranger. He shoots a man dead for no very good reason. Is there a similar train of causes leading to this action as there was to hailing the taxi?

What, if anything, was the cause of Meursault’s brain reaching the decision to pull the trigger? We might suppose it was because he was mean or vicious, or perhaps he had a suppressed love of violence. Why did he have those characteristics? Was it his genes, or perhaps a product of his early environment? Perhaps it was a history of past cruel and callous acts he has done that has lowered his inhibitions to pulling the trigger. But then what caused those acts?

We can go back and back and back. If we can trace the causes back to events that occurred before Meursault was conceived, then free will cannot have played any role in his decision. What are the alternatives? I think the following list is exhaustive:

  1. The chain of causes ends with an event in Meursault’s brain (or ‘mind’, if we prefer) that was uncaused. It just happened without a cause. Perhaps that is what libertarians mean by free will.
  2. The chain of causes ends with an event outside Meursault’s brain/mind, while he was alive, that was uncaused.
  3. The chain of causes ends in a causal loop of events that occur while Meursault was alive.
  4. The chain of causes does not end. It undergoes an infinite regress. As we have assumed there are no causes prior to Meursault’s conception, this regress must occur within the finite time of Meursault’s life.

Of these options, 1 and 2 require denial that every event has a cause. 3 requires acceptance of causal loops and 4 requires acceptance of an infinite regress.

The usual notion of causality requires that a cause happens at a time earlier than its effect, which rules out causal loops (option 3) and requires that there is some time t0 to which the times of the causes in option 4 asymptotically approach (but never reach) as we trace backwards through the infinite causal regress. Further, t0 must be no earlier than the moment of Meursault’s conception. But then we can combine all the events in the causal chain occurring between t0 and t0+1 nanosecond and call that a single event. That event is not caused by any prior event, and hence is uncaused.

So this analysis presents us with a stark choice: either the action was caused by events before Meursault’s conception, and we must deny libertarian free will, or the action can be traced back to an uncaused event, in which case we must deny that every event has a cause.

What makes this interesting is that many Christian apologists try to assert both the existence of libertarian free will (as part of doctrines about original sin and salvation) and the necessity of every event being caused (as part of a classical cosmological argument for the existence of God). Based on the above analysis, it appears impossible to hold both beliefs. Either one must ditch universal causality (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’ as it is sometimes called) or one must discard libertarian free will.

My current position is that I suspect neither belief is true. I can’t prove that, but I don’t need to – it is a perfectly plausible hypothesis. Equally, it seems plausible to believe one of the two but not the other. The problem arises when you wish to believe both.

There is nothing new in any of these arguments. They have all been made before, many times. But it strikes me as particularly stark and concise that belief in libertarian free will requires asserting a break in the chain of causality, whereas many of those that wish to hold that belief also assert in another context that everything must have a cause.