This is a reworked version of a soft compatibilist model for addressing the problem of free will vs. determinism which I posited in a thread last November. The thread didn’t get much traction, but a few posters objected that I hadn’t explained how the model could work. Since then, I’ve done more reading, have given the matter much thought and may have found a way to meet the objection. My current thesis goes like this. It seems to me that neither libertarian free will nor determinism adequately describe how the mind works. Rather, introspection and observation suggest we generally have volition, i.e., the ability to direct our behavior and make decisions without benefit of a pre-defined decision tree, but its exercise is influenced and constrained by various factors, including genetics, socialization, personality and life experience. We can best make sense of these competing observations, I think, by viewing volition as an emergent property of the brain. To be clear, I’m a materialist, not a dualist, so I’m not talking about any sort of magical ghost in the machine.
Let’s start with libertarian free will. It ignores the evidence that decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. What we do is influenced by many factors, including (as mentioned) genetics, socialization, personality and life experience. Moreover, LFW has a hard time explaining things like alcoholism, depression, homelessness and senility. On the other hand, determinism conflicts with our ordinary experience of how we make decisions. Determinists assert this is an illusion, but that’s a philosophical argument, not a scientific one. Further, determinism has a hard time explaining important domains of human action like creativity and language. Also, there’s the evidence of socialization. Young children have very little impulse control. As they mature and are socialized, they usually acquire the skill. What they are learning, it seems to me, is volition, i.e., the ability to direct their behavior. A similar analysis obtains for things like OCD, ADHD, alcoholism and violent temper. In each case, what we strive to achieve (by therapy or otherwise) is impulse control, i.e., restoring volition. Finally, it’s interesting to note we’ve had no success (so far) modeling human thought on computers. Computers, of course, are deterministic. That we can’t get them to think (in a human sense) suggests thought is a different sort of thing.
One path out of this thicket is traditional compatibilism. See, e.g., Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003). He argues that determinism is compatible with free will if we view free will merely as the sort of guidance control necessary to assign moral responsibility. This is different from the libertarian view, which is that the will is actually free and not determined by causal necessity. (As an aside, I heartily wish Dennett and other compatibilists would use another term, e.g., responsible agency, to describe the sort of free will they’re defending, but apparently the equivocation has become entrenched in the literature.) The problem with Dennett’s view is that, under the rules of philosophical reasoning, guidance control is insufficient to establish moral responsibility since the system itself was supplied determinatively. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Compatibilism (warning: this is a long article). Notably, the Stanford article surveys over a dozen traditional compatibilist theories and finds similar objections to all of them.
My path out of the thicket is a little different. Hence soft compatibilism. I take a pragmatic rather than philosophical view. Instead of black or white (or both at the same time), I propose it’s shades of grey. Which is to say, we’re neither the automatons suggested by determinism, nor the god-like autonomous beings suggested by LFW. Instead, we’re evolved creatures doing out best to get by in a complex world. Viewed this way, volition is an adaptive mechanism which gives us more flexibility to respond to problems than genetics alone can provide. In this regard, it’s important to remember that the brain is a naturally evolved system. Unlike Watson and Big Blue, the famous computers which can play Jeopardy and chess better than even the best humans, the brain wasn’t designed or programmed by anybody. Rather, it’s a product of natural selection. One of its great strengths is how well it handles novelty. Solving the problems of the hunt, for example, didn’t depend on genetic or instinctive mechanisms. Instead, we could figure them out and create strategies on the fly. And could change them from generation to generation as circumstances changed. This is an important reason why we were a successful species, even though only modestly endowed with strength and speed. It also explains why we were successful across a diverse range of environments, from jungles to polar regions.
What could make this work is the notion of emergent properties. Emergence is a form of modeling, where a complex system displays characteristics which can’t be readily explained or predicted by the operation of its constituent parts. The schooling behavior of fish is a simple example. Consider language. We start with a genetic capacity: vocal cords, eyes, ears and speech processing centers in the brain. As we’re socialized, we’re exposed to language and learn to use it ourselves. Along the way, we pick up a vocabulary and grammar rules. Many of us even learn to think about how to use language to be effective speakers and writers. It’s an extended process, but at some point we may be said to have a facility, a module if you will, which enables us to formulate and express ideas. Is this facility or module deterministic? In a sense, but not as a practical matter. Rather, it seems to me an emergent property. Obviously it was formed by a set of inputs, genetic and social, but in use it goes beyond those inputs. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s grounded but self-ordering. Something independent and supervening (in the ordinary sense of the word) is going on when we use language which goes beyond the inputs. Not free of them, by any means, but not easily captured or explained by them either. Nor is language the only thing of which this can be said. It can be said of the skills of a carpenter, scientist, teacher, cook or artist. Indeed, I would say the hallmark of just about everything we learn is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, i.e., that what we develop is a set of skills we can apply to novel problems. Decision making can be similarly viewed as an emergent facility or module, like language and carpentry.
Importantly, emergence in the sense I’m using it here (the form generally accepted by scientists and philosophers) doesn’t claim emergent properties can’t in principle be explained or predicted in a Laplacian sense. It’s just a model, a useful way of describing an often inscrutably complex system. By contrast, there’s a stronger view of emergence which claims the system isn’t reducible even in principle, but this view has few adherents and seems unable to identify a system which meets the claim. For a general discussion, see Wikipedia; for a more technical one, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; see also Baas & Emmeche (emergence as explanation), Boogerd et al. (emergence in biology), Ellis & Larsen-Freeman (emergence in linguistics) and Emergence (2008) (collecting essays by various philosophers and scientists) (note: all these except Wiki are lengthy, dense and probably of interest only to hard core enthusiasts). One key insight of emergence, especially as viewed by scientists, is that reductionism doesn’t work in reverse in most cases, i.e., we usually can’t as a practical matter derive the macro from the micro. The world is too complicated. In such cases, it’s the observable macro rather than the in principle micro which matters. My “take away” is this. We, as human actors, operate at a macro level where volition is an observable emergent phenomenon, albeit subject to macro-level influences and limitations. I submit we may legitimately use this observed volition as a basis for assigning moral responsibility, recognizing there are cases where the assumption breaks down.
Notice that, while I’m arguing for volition, I’m also arguing the mind isn’t as free as is commonly assumed using the LFW model. Real and observable constraints like personality disorders, addiction and senility sometimes keep people from acting with the sort of free will upon which our system of moral responsibility is grounded. If this is correct, there’s often something unfair in how we judge people, legally and socially. That to me is the important implication of my model, much more important than the abstract conundrum of emergent volition vs. Laplacian determinism.
I realize this is long. It’s a complex subject. Thoughts?