Why I'll Never Torture Cats

I am a determinist. ...The real issue, so far as the will is concerned, is not whether we can do what we choose to do, but whether we can choose our own choice, whether the choice itself issues in accordance with law from some antecedent. -- Brand Blanshard


I sometimes get into odd discussions. Recently I went to a concert with a friend of mine and the performers ended up being so impressively horrible (I've heard better singing from drunken barmaids doing kareoke) that, naturally, the conversation meandered towards the issue of free will: what is it and do we have it?

I'm being a bit facetious. The same friend had previously bought a battered summary of western philosophy at a used bookstore in which the free will problem featured prominently. We had, in fact, discussed the issue beforehand that very same day. I'm not sure what his opinion is; at the concert, in between musical numbers that didn't sound quite so pleasant as fingernails scratching on chalkboard, he still seemed to be trying to decide what exactly he believed.

The Popular Status Quo

Free will is such a heated topic because of the issue of determinism. Determinism is the belief that the present and future state of the universe (including, presumably, the present and future states of those who inhabit it, namely us) is a function solely of the past states of the universe and natural law. That is to say, the future is determined by the past and the laws of physics - nothing more. And therein lies the (supposed) problem: if this description of reality is accurate (and for a long time, it certainly seemed to be), then there doesn't seem to be any room for human choice to influence the future. If the entire history of the universe has already, in some sense, been mapped out by the laws of physics, then it seems pretty clear that any actions we as humans do are, in fact, caused by past physical events (including events that happened before we were born, up to and including the events that led to the birth of the universe) and hence aren't really under our control. Under this view of things, free will does not exist.

I'm convinced that this view of things is the prevalent one because of the way in which the debate is generally presented. It's framed as a contest of free will versus determinism. Free will is contrasted with determinism as if they were on opposite sides of the same coin and as if to believe in one means not to believe in the other. Out of this dichotomy you get two kinds of people: those who accept determinism while rejecting free will, and those who accept free will while rejecting determinism. The point to take home with you is that both type of people accept the dichotomy as presented; they just reject different parts of the syllogism. In philosophical circles, people who accept the dichotomy are called "incompatibilists". They believe that determinism is incompatible with free will.

Privately, I tend to label those people in the former category as "cynics" while those in the latter category as "mystics". I have this image in my mind of people from the first category, priding themselves on being surpassingly rational and scientific, gloating that we are all merely sacks of chemicals being buffeted by the laws of physics, like flags in the wind, while people from the second category desperately try to protect what they imagine to be one of the most important facets of human existence, and if that means chucking out the laws of physics and believing in miracles, then so be it.

A Brief Detour - Quantum Physics and Choice

A brief detour is in order at this point. There are some scientifically savvy people who will point out that deterministic physics died as a complete picture of the universe when quantum physics gained prominence, and who furthermore seem to think that the indeterminism so prevalent at quantum levels somehow provides a safe haven for free will to operate.

Bluntly put, it doesn't.

First, randomness does not magically imbue a being with free will. Even if the human brain were a quantum device, with the associated randomness and indeterminacy, this would simply make human choices the result of random processes in the brain. It would not make human choices the result of human will. Press him and he will probably also tell you that what I described above is not free will at all, that the "choices" we see every day are not genuine choices since there was never any possibility that the person making the choice could have chosen otherwise. Given how the laws of physics seem to to operate at the level of the human brain (i.e. the brain seems to be a macroscopic device, more or less free of quantum level fluctuations), there is only ever one outcome of any so-called choice, and that outcome is determined and established by the laws of physics - not by us.

To incompatibilists, it's this notion that one "could have done otherwise" that seems to be an inseparable part of what it means to make a choice - and it's at this point that they and I part company. It's this very idea that the making a "genuine" choice must involve the theoretical possibility of more than one outcome that I take issue with.

Imagine that you know an ardent cat lover who has a tendency to take in strays. This woman has been taking care of cats all her life, owns at least six, etc. Now, suppose that someone comes up to this woman and offers her $100 to torture a kitten by setting it on fire. I suspect her answer would be very predictable. Given what is known about the kind of person she is, I would even be tempted to say that only one course of action was possible and I don't think this would be a very controversial statement. But would anyone claim that this woman was not exercising her free will by choosing not to torture the cat?

In fact, I'll go one step further and say that I think determinism is necessary for out intuitive notions of free will to operate. Using our aforementioned cat lover as an example, it's instructive to ask what it would actually mean, in this case, to say that this woman "could have chosen" to set the kitten on fire. Simply put, it would amount to an act against her own character - but how exactly does one go about doing something against one's character? Ironically, if she did accept the offer, the typical gut response would probably be that that she was forced to do it against her will.

I'll repeat that last point, because I think it's a much more important point than alot of people realize. The irony is that, if she did accept the offer, acted against her own character, and did something completely unpredictable, the typical gut response would probably be that that she was forced to do it against her will.

This reveals, I think, something very important concerning the nature of the language surrounding the free will debate. It reveals that when most people talk about "choices", it doesn't so much matter whether this or that personality trait led to this or that "choice". It doesn't so much matter if the person making the "choice" could not have really done otherwise because of the kind of person he is. What does matter is that the person in question acted according to his or her own character, without anyone else forcing the issue.

Does it make a difference if we choose a less extreme example? What if the choice in question was whether to buy CD #1 or CD #2 assuming that you like both bands equally and they both cost $15 and that happens to be the exact amount of cash you have in your pocket? There are many day-to-day examples of choices who's outcome is not entirely obvious, i.e. who's outcome is not as predicable as the response of a cat lover when faced with the prospect of setting a kitten on fire. What are we supposed to make of those? If I decide to buy CD #1 in the end, could I have chosen to buy CD #2?

I think in this case, many people confuse "unpredictability" with "non-determinism". It's assumed that if we don't know what the outcome of a choice will be, then there must be two "forks in the road" so to speak and this amounts to some great and profound statement of metaphysics. Quite simply, I don't buy this. The decision may not be as predictable as other actions, but that doesn't mean the decision doesn't depend on (ultimately) physical factors. You probably don't even have to take it that far - there are likely psychological reasons why one would choose one CD over the other. And even if there aren't any specific psychological factors, even if the exact physical causes behind the decision remain elusive, this doesn't mean that the decision is non-deterministic. It simply means that we don't know all the physics involved.

Could I have chosen to buy the other CD? Yes...and no. This is like spinning a roulette wheel, watching the ball land on 36, and then asking whether the ball "could have" landed on 22. In one sense, the answer is "Of course!", or else casinos would go out of business very quickly. We don't know all the factors that direct the motion of the ball, so we reserve judgment until the event occurs. Up until that time, things "could go either way" so to speak, but this is not a profound statement of metaphysics. It's simply a shorthand way of saying we don't know how the event will turn out. And so it is with alot of the choices we see every day. It's not obvious what the outcome will be simply because we don't know everything there is to know - and likely never will.

The Battle Over Terminology

In the CD example, it may seem as if I'm capitulating to the incompatibilist camp by saying that a seemingly unpredictable (and hence, seemingly free) decision really boils down to a physical set of events, like any decision. I'm not.

A mystic will agree that a real choice was made, but will claim that something other than physics guides the choice. A cynic will agree that the "choice" boils down to deterministic physics, but will insist on the scare quotes around the word "choice", to indicate that that this was never a real choice to begin with. I'm claiming that a real, honest-to-goodness choice was made, and that this choice fundamentally boils down to deterministic processes. I'm able to claim this because I don't think that the "possibility of having doing otherwise" (in the sense that mystics and cynics mean it) is a necessary feature of a genuine choice.

At this point, I'm sure there are many people who don't buy my claim, and who insist that my version of "choice" and "free will" is simply incorrect. At the end of the day, this debate (like all debates, when push comes to shove) is really a debate over terminology. It's a debate over who gets the right to use the terms "choice" and "free will" without the scare quotes. I say that one can use them meaningfully without any supernatural connotations. Incompatibilists disagree.

In my defence, there are lots of examples of words and terms whose original meanings were fettered with supernatural connotations that have since been more or less shed by rational people. One word that comes to mind is "life". It used to be thought that in order for an organism to be considered alive, it had to be imbued with a special vital force which had an existence distinct from its biological functions. This vital force was invisible and undetectable in every way, but it had a real existence and without it, you could not call an organism alive.

One can imagine an enlightened Renaissance scientist proudly proclaiming that that he doesn't believe is this mysterious, undetectable vital force. According to his contemporaries, however, part of what it means to be alive is to be imbued with this vital force. Since he doesn't believe this force exists, the scientist is faced with a, errr, choice. He can

  1. Proudly proclaim that since the vital force does not exist, then every organism that we had hitherto called "alive" isn't alive at all, but rather dead.

  2. Concede that since it is quite obvious that certain organisms are alive, then he must have been wrong about the vital force and change his beliefs.

  3. Change his definitions of "life" and "alive" slightly so that the supernatural aspect is removed.

A cynic would choose option the first option. A mystic would choose the second option. I would choose the third option.

The cynic, however, is faced with another problem. He can say, of course, with perfect logic, that since being alive must necessarily entail the existence of a vital force, and since this vital force does not exist, that we are all, in reality, dead. He can say it, but he would still be faced with the task of distinguishing between, say, a corpse of a cat, and a cat which meows and plays and purrs. He would still be faced with the task of distinguishing between an inanimate human body and one which walks and talks and smiles. And people would still be faced with the need to figure out the right time to bury someone.

I would claim that the distinction between dead and alive in fact hinges on these physical differences. The whole thing about the vital force is almost a footnote. You can talk meaningfully about "life" and "alive" without even mentioning the vital force, and, historically, this is what happened. Scientists talk about life all the time, without the associated supernatural baggage, and people don't accuse them of misusing the word. People don't insist that they use scare quotes.

The denier of free will is in the same situation. He assumes there must be some sort of supernatural aspect to the very concept of "free will". Being a rational person, he doesn't believe in the supernatural and hence must concede that all the agents who we had hitherto assumed to possess free will are merely automatons being buffeted by the cruel laws of physics, like leaves in the ocean. He can say this, but he would still be faced with the task of distinguishing between, say, sex and rape. He would still be faced with the task of distinguishing between someone who drives his car off a cliff in an act of suicide, and someone who drives his car off a cliff because he was tied down to the seat with rope.

An extraterrestrial who didn't know about concept of free will might have trouble distinguishing between these events. And it's true

Genuine Choices Versus Fake Choices

I can hear some people now:

But how do you know that the choices we make are genuine choices as opposed to just being the result of whatever process happens to be going on in your brain at that time?

Asking this question shows that you haven't understood what I've been saying, or perhaps that I haven't been very clear. I'm not making a distinction between "genuine" choices and whatever physical processes are associated with them in the human brain. The physical processes are, in some sense, the genuine choice. That is to say, the genuine choice is built up from its physical constituents and nothing else.

Yes, I am oversimplifying (and fibbing slightly), but in the interests of brevity in an already long essay, I won't go into the details of the theory, mostly because I haven't hashed out the details. I'm not literally identifying "free will" or "choices" with one particular physical process, or even a group of (perhaps unknown) physical processes. I'm suggesting that that free will is, in some sense, dependent on physical factors (and nothing else).

The philosophical term for what I'm suggesting is supervenience, a term used in the philosophy of mind. Free will supervenes on physics. It can be explained a bit formally as follows:

A set of properties or facts M supervenes on a set of properties or facts P if and only if there can be no changes or differences in M without there being changes or differences in P. -- Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind

Put plainly, free will is the result of physical factors, and there can be no difference in the exercising of free will from one situation to the next without some kind of change in the underlying physical factors.

Or, to put it another way, the difference between choosing CD #1 over CD #2 must necessarily boil down to something physically different in the agent.

Note that this is not quite the same thing as identifying as one or more physical processes. One does not literally point to a particular chemical reaction in the human brain and say "See that reaction right there? That conversion of Hydrogen Doohickeysulphide to Carbon Gigglefite? That was really Sally choosing Snickers over Twix!" This would be a very narrow minded view, and would preclude, for example, the possibility of extraterrestrials having free will (because, assumedly, their physical makeup would be vastly different from ours). It would also preclude the possibility of the physical makeup of a choice varying from situation to situation. I am saying something much less extreme: in any particular situation, the exercising of free will must be "backed up", so to speak, by something physical, which may vary from person to person, or from situation to situation.

The Cat Sits On The Mat

I'm not what one would call a "reductionist", if I understand the term correctly. To say that "free will" is "reducible" to physics, you have to be very careful to define what you mean by "reduce". If by "reduce" you mean that every aspect of free will is explainable by a specific physical process, then I am certainly not a reductionist. I believe that there are facts about free will that aren't really "explainable" in terms of physics. If that sounds like I'm contradicting my entire essay, allow me to explain.

Let's say I write "The cat sits on the mat" on a piece of paper with a pen. Several facts exist about this sentence, about each word, and how each word relates to entire sentence. The sentence is, for example, grammatically correct, the word "cat" is a noun, the word "sits" is the present tense of the verb "to sit", etc. In other words, there's a fair bit you can say about this sentence without even mentioning the fact that the sentence is written with a pen and paper. The fact that the sentence was written on a piece of paper with a pen is irrelevant in this context.

To use the terminology that has been previously developed, there is a relationship of supervenience between the grammatical facts of the sentence and the physical facts of the scratches of ink - the grammatical facts of the sentence are "backed up" by the scratches of ink on the paper. Any change to the grammatical structure of the sentence would necessitate a change in the arrangement of the ink scratches - in the same way the choosing CD #1 over CD #2 would necessitate a physical change in the person making the choice.

But can I say that the grammatical facts are "explainable" by the scratches of ink on paper? Of course not, one good reason being that you can type out the phrase on a computer and the grammatical facts would stay exactly the same, while the ink and paper have completely disappeared. Supervenience does not imply reducibility.


So where does this leave us? Well, it leaves me trying to defend a notion of free will that doesn't involve the supernatural. It leaves me trying to convince the world that free will is real and physical. And it leaves me trying to wedge myself out of the whole "Free Will vs. Determinism" debate because I feel that the framework is misguided.

I do hope I've gotten the main ideas across here. I don't, however, pretend that they are unique. With research, I've found that my opinion is very closely aligned with the compatibilists as outlined in the Wikipedia article on free will. In my defense, though, I did have my opinions laid out in more or less their present form before I read the article :)