Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On freedom: (1) Human freedom

For the next little bit, I want to talk about freedom. Not in the political sense necessarily; more in the broader, metaphysical-y (metaphysical-esque? metaphysical-ish?) sense. I tend to think the two notions are related, in that figuring out the broader sense helps in figuring out the narrower political sense. But the tradition doesn't always draw these distinctions in a particularly clear way, and common thinking consequently seems to confuse them. My aim for today is to spell out some ideas regarding the broad sense of freedom, and then use those as a jumping-off point to talk about political freedom and why freedom matters.

So, what is freedom? Intuitions famously diverge. The standard intro to philosophy way of getting people to think about freedom is via the so-called "problem of free will" -- which unfortunately isn't obviously a problem, nor is it obviously about "free will" as such. Still, it's as good a place as any to start.

As you start delving through the history of philosophy, you find a broad division between two different ways of thinking about human thought and action. One holds that human thought and action originate in what we could call basic capacities. Thought is a result of the capacity called reason; and action is a result of the capacity called will. The other holds that human thought and action originate in a complex interaction of a variety of impulses, tendencies, dispositions, and so on. Thought and action alike, then, are a result of some sort of collision or combination of different parts of oneself. What distinguishes the two approaches, then, is that the former takes thought and action to each have its own basic and unique capacity, while the latter takes thought and action to be higher-level consequences of lower-level processes, with no necessary connection between parts of the lower-level and parts of the higher. (Hybrid views are, of course, possible, but focusing on the extremes is methodologically useful.)

The approaches do share something, though, which is a commitment to the claim that human beings are at least in some sense part of the causal order. By the "causal order" is meant nothing very mysterious: just the usual ramshackle physical world. Human beings are parts of physical reality, and so are subject to physical causes and can produce physical effects. This creates the problem of free will for both approaches. (Note that I'm omitting the moral responsibility aspect of the problem, as I think it leads us into worse confusions.)

If you take human thought and action to be grounded in basic capacities, and humans to be part of the causal order, then one of two things must be true: either those capacities are, as parts of a causally-ordered thing, caused by something, or they are caused by nothing, despite being parts of a causally-ordered thing. (The latter is not impossible. I, as a person, am part of the legal order; my right forefinger is a part of me; but my right forefinger is not part of the legal order -- my right forefinger cannot commit crimes, only I can.) If they are caused by something, then my thought and action are caused by something, and hence are not freely chosen (because determined by things outside myself). If they are caused by nothing, then my thought and action are caused by nothing, and hence are not freely chosen (because random and not the result of anything I have done).

If you take human thought and action to be higher-level consequences of lower-level processes, and humans are part of the causal order, then one of two things must be true: either those processes are, as parts of a causally-ordered thing, caused by something, or they are caused by nothing, despite being parts of a causally-ordered thing. If they are caused by something, then my thought and action are caused by something, and hence are not freely chosen (because determined). If they are caused by nothing, then my thought and action are caused by nothing, and hence are not freely chosen (because random).

The traditional solutions to the problem split into three positions: (hard) determinism, compatibilism (also "soft determinism"), and libertarianism (not the political view). Hard determinists accept the first horn: our thoughts and actions are fully causally determined, and hence are not freely chosen. Libertarians partially accept the second horn: our thoughts and actions are not causally determined -- but try to argue that they are nonetheless freely chosen. And compatibilists partially accept the first horn: our thoughts and actions are fully causally determined -- but try to argue that they are nonetheless freely chosen. I don't know of anyone who fully accepts the second horn: perhaps this could be glossed as some sort of extreme nihilism or perverse fatalism.

Hopefully, you can see why this is not a useful problem, in itself, for figuring out what freedom is. The "problem of free will" focuses our attention on whether a certain conception of free choice is compatible with a certain conception of the causal order. It doesn't help us to figure out what the causal order actually is, and it doesn't help us to determine exactly what freedom is. In that sense, then, the problem is misconceived. The resulting positions, though, are useful, for in their development there must be some consideration of what it would take for an action or a thought to be the result of some free choice.

On the hard determinist side, of course, the answer is fundamentally negative: there is nothing that there could be for an action or a thought to be the result of some free choice. This, to my eye, is either a gross scientism or a form of despair. That is, one can be led to hard determinism by believing that only science can tell us what is true and real; and, since science assumes the universe to be a roughly uniform causal order, anything that doesn't fit -- such a freedom -- needs to be excluded. One can also be led to hard determinism through despair of ever achieving any sort of deep and meaningful freedom -- sort of a surrender to philosophical pessimism.

On the libertarian side, the answer is positive, but obscure. Libertarians hold out hope for a freedom that somehow allows us to escape the causal order, and yet doesn't deprive the causal order of its significance. After all, many things that we do and think we actually want to be caused, at least partially, by the world around us. My past choices, for example, if they matter at all matter because they make a difference to what I do now and in the future. So, the trick for libertarianism is to retain causal influence over thought and action, but do so in a way that doesn't prevent us from deviating, yet without deviation looking like a random occurrence.

This is a very difficult trick to pull off; I've never read a libertarian who was persuasive on this point. The difficulty to my eye is conceiving of the impact of choice on thought and action in a way that isn't causal. It just seems impossible to me: if my past choices matter, it is because they act as partial causes of future choices. My sense is that libertarians are yearning for the sort of extreme freedom that the hard determinists sought and failed to find: the ability to always do otherwise, to take some option which has nothing to do with one's history or nature or anything at all. Without getting into whether this radical freedom has any point (again: how does it differ from randomness?), it doesn't strike me as something we actually have. The more we know about humans in general, and particular humans, for that matter, the better able we are to predict and control what they will do. We are rarely surprised by the behaviour and thoughts of people we know well; and the behaviour and thoughts of human in groups are becoming progressively better understood. So, I don't think this sort of radical freedom really exists, even if it is conceptually possible.

Therefore, I think compatibilism has the most going for it as a way of figuring out what human freedom is and how much of it we have, especially given our presence in a world of causes. A compatibilist would take free choice as a cause among many, one which originates from either a fundamental capacity (the will) or that emerges from lower-level (probably neurobiological) processes. The story will be causal all the way down -- so, we are still creatures in the causal order -- but some of those causes will be identifiable as originating from within the human agent him/herself, and thus count as free choices. That is, in order to salvage the idea of human freedom, we need to identify the human self as a locus of a certain set of causes and, through so doing, we identify human freedom within the causal order.

That, then, would be what I take human freedom to be: that there are some causes which can be counted as (part of) the human self. We are free insofar as (and to the extent that) there is some part of us which makes a causal difference to what we think and do. Sometimes the choices we make will be momentous ones -- I'm tempted to call these "decisions" to distinguish them -- and actually alter who we are and which choices count as free. Consider, for example, leaving a religious group that one has grown up in, one which placed significant limits on what was acceptable behaviour. The choice -- the decision -- to leave opens up a larger realm of possible choices -- possible self-oriented causes -- than one previously had. And sometimes the choices we make are insignificant -- such as whether to have pancakes or waffles for breakfast. I think there will be a line beneath which we wouldn't even call something a choice any more, instead terming it a fully-caused action; I'm thinking of habitual actions that we tend to always do in the same way. These originate from causes within one's self, but not the causes that count as freedom. But these distinctions within the causes that are part of me don't affect the general idea that some of those causes are the ones that count as freedom, whose effects count as free choices.

For next week (it's summer, so I'll try to do these weekly), I'll consider how this connects to political freedom.

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