Free Will and the Science of Human Nature

Via hbd* chick, I came across JayMan's article, No, You Don't Have Free Will, and This is Why. JayMan is responding to an article by Roy Baumeister, Do You Really Have Free Will?. Baumeister has been featured on this blog before.

JayMan lauds Baumeister for avoiding any supernatural arguments in his article, but he criticizes Baumeister for confusing free will with agency,

that is, the ability to make decisions, especially those that involve human-level “self-control” and response to socially constructed rules...

I wouldn't identify free will with agency, but this isn't that bad of an argument. I will make an argument for the existence of free will on the terms presented in JayMan's blog, using agency as a tool. But first, lets look at JayMan's argument. I think is a good argument, one that should be considered in detail.

Baumeister said this, but I think it is pretty good:

There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause.

Right, free will is a kind of cause. It is definitely not an uncaused cause, or some sort of causeless action. All acts have causes. Unless you are willing to consider the second of the Five Ways to prove that God exists, however, we are excluding supernatural explanations here.

JayMan next criticizes Baumeister for looking for free will in complexity. I also wouldn't go looking here. People forget that chaos theory, and other such scientific results are completely determinisitic. Complicated or hard to predict are not the same thing as free.

Baumeister next makes an Aristotelian argument, that plants lack locomotion, whereas animals have it. Animals need the ability to decide where to go based on sensory input, and thus make decisions.  All correct, and a very old argument. JayMan correctly notes that the ability to make a decision doesn't require it to be a free decision. The sensory outputs could completely determine the outcome. I doubt that Aquinas or Aristotle would have disagreed with that.

JayMan next points out that in aggregate, many human behaviors are predictable, and that we know that behavioral traits are somewhat heritable. This is the best part of the whole thing. I am absolutely fascinated by this, and I like learning about the ways in which our minds work. A lot of what we do is shaped by our personalities, our education, our upbringing, our past experiences, and even our genes.

Yet, for all that, I'm still going to argue the premises don't entail the conclusion, and free will exists. I actually have the easier part of the argument. In order for JayMan to prevail, no freedom whatsoever is permissible in decision making. I simply need to find a counter-example to prove the negative. I'm happy to agree that much of human behavior is determined by material causes. The philosophical tradition of which I am part agrees that we are material beings, and subject to material causes.

I agree that the process by which we process sensory input is determined by material causes. Complex ones, but material nonetheless. The trouble comes in the process of simulating the course of action. We know that hypotheses are underdetermined by data, no matter how much there is. It is not possible for a computation, or simulation, or whatever physical process is going on, to reduce a to determinate conclusion in all cases. Heck, I only need it to be true once for this argument to work. If your mind comes up with more than one possible course of action what is equally compelling [this is an assumption on my part, but I think a reasonable one], you need a way to choose between these courses. This is precisely what is meant by "free will", the ability to freely choose between limited goods. The cases gets more compelling when you consider that we never only want one thing. Being finite beings, we can't have everything we want. You can satisfy this genetic preference, or that one, but not both. The mere inability to choose seems a possible option, but it is clear most people manage to negotiate this impasse.

It seems likely that the way the mind works is to help you estimate probabilities of things happening: if you chose X instead of Y you are more likely to get Z. This seems to neatly explain our propensities to do things predictably without requiring us to eliminate free will. All the great masters meant by "free will" was that the logic in our minds is not powerful enough to force us choose one of the options our minds present to us, because this judgment is contingent, and therefore not capable of being determinative.

Even if we were to assume that the brain must always choose the highest probability option [and I think always would be hard to prove, and contrary to experience], it is not clear that a highest probability option must exist. To build a philosophically deterministic argument on a foundation of probability seems unwise. In order to prevail with a purely probabilistic materialist determinism, you need to smuggle in something more certain to clinch the argument, which is where I think Baumeister was trying to go with emergent properties.

I am perfectly happy to argue there are some determinative forces in nature that push us, and other things, in certain directions, but some of these things are immaterial, and I said I wasn't going to go there. I think pursuing this line of argumentation does not end well for the committed materialist.