Is Human Free Agency Really Possible? Yes; Here’s How. Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook 12

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse


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246. Is human free agency really possible? Yes; and here’s how. Is human free agency really possible in the natural world as correctly described by modern physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience–and if so, how is that really possible?

Or more briefly put, given the truth of modern science, are you really a free agent–and if so, how?

Yes; here’s how.

247. By free agency, I mean the conjunction of free will and practical agency, which in turn means

(i) that you can choose and do what you want to, or refrain from so choosing or doing, without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces (free will), and

(ii) that you can self-consciously choose and do what you want to, for reasons, and with deep moral or non-moral responsibility (free agency).

And by deep moral or non-moral responsibility for X, I mean

(i) that X is something you chose or did yourself, whose objective moral value flows from and directly attaches to your freely willed choice or action.

(ii) that deep moral responsibility requires free will—if you weren’t able to choose or do X, without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces, then you couldn’t be deeply morally or non-morally responsible for X.

An example of choice and action with deep moral responsibility would be deciding to join the Democratic Socialists of America and then voting for the local DSA-endorsed candidate in the US midterm elections.

And an example of choice and action with deep non-moral responsibility would be creating a work of art, as per my latest poetic creation:

To Bee Or Not To Bee

Oh! how I long to see, the inner workings of a bee;

It knows not what it is to be, but only how to be, a bee.

248. The thesis of Natural Determinism says that everything that happens now and in the future is strictly fixed by the laws of nature together with all the actual facts about the past.

And the thesis of Natural Indeterminism says that at least some things and perhaps all things that happen are not strictly fixed by the laws of nature together with all the actual facts about the past, but also happen more or less randomly, according to mathematical laws of probability.

249. Most contemporary philosophers and scientists, and many non-philosophers too, hold that you are not really free, because they also believe that the truth of modern science entails a thesis I call Natural Mechanism.

Natural mechanism says

(i) that everything that happens is either deterministic, indeterministic, or some mixture of both (say, macroscopically deterministic but microscopically indeterministic at the quantum level), and

(ii) that all the causal and quantitative characteristics of those happenings are not only

(ii.1) strictly fixed by the general causal laws of nature and/or the mathematical laws of probability, especially those laws governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy, together with all the settled facts about the past, especially including the Big Bang,

but also

(ii.2) calculable from those laws and facts on an ideal digital computer.

If Natural Mechanism is true, then you are not really free, because, instead, no matter what you may believe about your own freedom, you are really a deterministic or indeterministic natural automaton, ultimately caused by the Big Bang.

So, in effect, you’re essentially only a fancy machine like Maria in Metropolis, Roy Batty or Rachael in Blade Runner, or Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell:

250. I will now sketch a new theory of free agency that is neither contrary to modern science nor committed to the thesis of Natural Mechanism, that I call Natural Libertarianism, and, correspondingly, also provide a new proof for the real possibility of human free agency, by explaining and proving its actual existence.

Two philosophical truths for the price of one!

251. Natural Libertarianism flows from two simple but earth-shattering ideas proposed by Kant in the 18th century, and also from one slightly less simple but still earth-shattering idea proposed by Nobel laureate physicist Ilya Prigogine in the late 20th century, in his 1997 book,The End of Certainty.

First, action that is perfectly in conformity with a law, is not necessarily entailed or otherwise necessitated by that law.

Second, real freedom presupposes, in rational human animals, the natural processes specifically characteristic of living organisms; but living organisms are not natural automata, whether deterministic or indeterministic, because they are self-organizing and purposive; hence real freedom is grounded in biological anti-mechanism.

Third, the correct physics is a non-deterministic interpretation of non-equilibrium thermodynamics. simplicity’s sake, I’ll call this correct physics NDI-NET.

Let us suppose, for the purposes of argument, that NDI-NET, as worked out, for example, by Prigogine in The End of Certainty —actually, it should have been called The End of Mechanism—is true, and that all the general causal laws of nature and/or mathematical laws of probability, as formulated by modern science, are also true, under the NDI-NET interpretation.

From these suppositions, taken together with Kant’s two ideas, not only does it not follow that Natural Mechanism is true and that we are really natural automata, it also follows that Natural Mechanism is not true and that we are really not natural automata.

252. To see this, suppose that everything we choose and do is at least consistent with those general causal natural laws and/or mathematical laws of probability, and that therefore we never violate any of them.

And in particular, suppose that we never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, hence we never violate any of the general causal natural laws and/or mathematical laws of probability governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that whatever we choose and do is entailed or otherwise necessitated by those laws.

This is because, as Kant pointed out, mere conformity of action with laws is not the same as entailment or necessitation by laws.

Indeed, for any general causal law of nature and/or mathematical law of probability whatsoever, no matter how specific it is, together with all the settled natural facts about the past, nevertheless, there is always some physical “open texture” that is not entailed or necessitated by that law, although it remains perfectly in conformity with the laws.

More precisely, in the wake of the Big Bang, there is always and everywhere some physical open texture that, at various stages of far-from-equilibrium, temporally-unidirectional, complex, self-organizing thermodynamic activity, as studied in NDI-NET, creates targets for ultra-specific, context-sensitive physical activity: e.g., the roiling surface-structures of boiling water; the Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction, plus light excitation; the unfolding of weather systems; the development of viruses; organismic activity including the purposive lives of simple organisms, plants, and animals; the feelings, desires, perceptions, and thoughts of conscious animals; and really free choice and action by conscious animals, including rational human animals.

253. Let us call these thermodynamic targets live options, and this physical open texture natural open space.

Given some live options in natural open space, then, even though you never violate any general causal laws of nature and/or mathematical laws of probability and never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, it remains really possible for you, in context, to choose and do some things you want to, in purposive, creative, and morally-empowered ways, by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring the total quantity of matter or energy that is always already available then and there.

254. For example: now type, write down, or declaim aloud any sequence of words that spontaneously comes into your head, for example, my poem, To Bee or Not To Bee.

In all likelihood, that amazing sentence—nay, that amazing poem—has never been produced before in the actual history of the natural universe.

Let’s call this sort of activity, natural self-determination.

Now do a little spontaneous dance by flapping your arms and legs, bobbing your head, and hopping up and down a bit (but be careful not to spill your coffee, or knock over your laptop!)–let’s call this The Freedom Dance.

255. This act of natural self-determination is just like a creative artist who makes an original work of art by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring whatever already-existing materials are given to her: in fact, it is just like creating To Bee Or Not To Bee.

As naturally self-determining animals, we are all creative natural artists, little bangs, who purposively bring new energy-structures into the world, and thereby actualize potential energy.

The Big Bang has done many things.

But it didn’t, on its own, type, write down, or declaim aloud my amazing poem, nor did it do The Freedom Dance.

I did it, with actual free agency.

Therefore, I’m not a natural automaton; instead I’m a naturally self-determining animal fully capable of free agency.

256. Now it’s your turn: go ahead and act creatively and/or spontaneously for a few seconds!

Didn’t that feel good?

Therefore, you and I both aren’t natural automata; on the contrary, we both are self-determining minded human animals capable of free agency.

So, self-evidently, Natural Libertarianism is true, given my original assumptions.

257. Finally, and as an encore, I’m going to refute my most important (although by no means my only) philosophical opponent, the Hard Determinist.

Here is a typical Hard Determinist–

See how smug and intellectually arrogant he looks!

That’s what comes from writing philosophically false but best-selling books that argue unsoundly from natural science by presupposing that Natural Mechanism is true.

Indeed, in his best-selling 2012 book, Free Will, the public philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote this:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have…. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. (p. 5)

In other words, Harris is saying

(i) that human free agency is impossible in the natural world as described by physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience,

(ii) because we’re really nothing but either deterministic automata or indeterministic/probabilistic automata, i.e., really nothing but complex machines,

(iii) that we’re not deeply morally or non-morally responsible for anything, and

(iv) that our self-defining belief in our own free agency and deep moral or non-moral responsibility is nothing but a cognitive illusion.

Therefore, Harris is defending what contemporary philosophers call Hard Determinism.

I think that Harris, and, by direct implication, all other Hard Determinists, are completely wrong, in that they are wrong about (i), wrong about (ii), wrong about (iii), and wrong about (iv).

If Natural Libertarianism is true, then they’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

258. But their view is also deliciously self-refuting, in the following way.

  1. Suppose that one holds what Sam Harris and other Hard Determinists hold.
  1. If that is true, then we are all natural machines with an irresistibly strong tendency to create cognitive illusions for ourselves.
  1. Therefore, under the supposition that the Hard Determinist’s theory is true, any holder of such a view cannot rule out the directly relevant possibility that s/he has created a cognitive illusion for herself by defending Natural Mechanism and Hard Determinism.
  1. But if the Hard Determinist cannot rule out this directly relevant possibility, then s/he is not rationally justified in believing in her own theory, nor is s/he deeply responsible for formulating it. In particular, then, if Sam Harris’s theory is true, then he’s not rationally justified in believing it and wasn’t even deeply responsible for writing his “own” best-selling book: what a sophist!
  1. So the Hard Determinist’s belief in her/his own theory is cognitively self-undermining.
  1. Therefore, Hard Determinism is rationally self-stultifying, hence self-refuting, and therefore false.

259. So I’d say that calls for another episode of The Freedom Dance.[i]

NOTE

[i] And after you’ve done that, you can also read this: R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (aka THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), available HERE and previewed HERE. No, sadly, it’s not going to be a best seller. But at least I’m rationally justified in believing what I wrote–and it’s my own work, for better or worse, not the Big Bang’s work. That’s something.


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