The Experience of Free Will

In this post, I plan to expand on my earlier post “Free Will” by explaining what I take to be the nature of the experience of free will. In other words, when I say that I observe my free will, what am I actually saying?

The primary attribute of the experience of free will is that I observe myself doing something, as opposed to being passively receptive of my sensory input and emotions, the spontaneous thoughts that sometimes emerge from my subconscious, and the other non-volitional aspects of my mental life.

It is readily observable that I can drift, i.e., I can relax the mental reins and let myself be pulled along by whatever feelings or thoughts I find myself with. In this state, a person does not criticize or analyze the feelings or thoughts that they are having – they do not wake up and ask “why do I feel this way? What might be causing this emotion right now?” or “is this inference valid? Do I really have good evidence for this belief of mine?” (One is almost inclined to conclude that this is the state determinists think we are always in, since it so accurately depicts their conception of the human mind as a passive, responsive entity.)

It is also readily observable that I can focus, i.e., I can use effort to bring my cognitive resources to bear on an issue. This is the moment when we wake up and start asking questions and rigorously analyzing the answers that we get, looking for concrete examples to test our generalizations against, and so on. Focus allows us to do two things.

First, focus allows us to narrow in on a specific issue. Our subconscious is constantly presenting us with a variety of different thoughts that are relevant to our current situation, and we do not directly control which thoughts it presents to us, as determinists love to point out. However, we do have the ability to direct our attention to specific items that our subconscious presents us with. If I have the sequence of thoughts “capitalism is good; capitalism depends on money; money is the root of all evil,” I have the ability to notice that there is something inconsistent here, then work on analyzing the claim that capitalism is good and the claim that money is the root of all evil in a disciplined fashion until I figure out what is wrong.

Second, focus allows us to draw connections between different issues. I was once writing an essay on Descartes when I realized that I would better understand Descartes’ ontological argument if I went back to the original author of the ontological argument, Anselm. This enabled me to find a connection between the problem of universals in Descartes and Anselm and their respective ontological arguments. If I wasn’t paying attention, I wouldn’t have been able to find this connection. Our ability to draw connections is also related to our ability to narrow in, because the better we have analyzed our beliefs in detail, the stronger the connections we will be able to draw between disparate issues.

So I think it should be clear that focus is starkly distinct from drift. When we focus, we observe ourselves doing something – whether that something be analyzing a specific issue in a disciplined fashion or synthesizing different issues together. During drift, we just sit there and watch the parade of thoughts and feelings that our subconscious spins out before us. These observations lend strong support to the claim that we have free will in the libertarian sense, and are not merely passive automatons, as determinists claim.

Subjectivism Blunts Morality

It is often said that subjectivism makes people less likely to care about morality or to act morally when the stakes are high. This is possibly true, but I think subjectivism also has the effect of blunting a person’s moral thought.

For example, subjectivists often compare our moral beliefs to our ice cream preferences. Clearly, this analogy suggests that morality is not important enough to spend a lot of time thinking about. No one has constructed a philosophically rigorous system to defend their ice cream preferences. Why is this? I think that there are several reasons.

First, ice cream preferences don’t have any hold on other people. Ice cream preferences are just matters of taste, so anyone can come along and wipe out your whole system by saying “nope, that’s not what I prefer.” If our beliefs in a certain area can’t aspire to bind other people, then we don’t really want to bother defending them or examining them at any length.

Second, ice cream preferences don’t seem to be capable of being objectively true the way scientific facts are. We are less likely to spend time defending a belief if it can’t aspire to objectivity, because we prefer finding things out about the world over contemplating our own subjective feelings.

Third, it doesn’t seem very useful to spend time defending our ice cream preferences. There are other things we need to do – most people have jobs that they have to spend a significant amount of time at, for example – and there is no real reason to spend time thinking carefully about something that is just a matter of our feelings.

So I would expect someone who believes morality is subjective to be significantly less likely to think carefully about his or her moral beliefs.

I need to make a couple of qualifications on this claim. First of all, this is not to say that moral subjectivists never think carefully about their moral beliefs. Hume, for example, was one moral subjectivist who thought very carefully about his moral beliefs. Nor am I saying that all moral objectivists think carefully about their moral beliefs. There are plenty of Christians who believe morality is “objective” without really knowing what that means or which moral beliefs make the most sense (although this may be motivated partly by their adherence to divine command theory, which encourages people to think that morality is a series of arbitrary commands and therefore in a sense subjective).

Here is an illustration of what I am saying. I once met an atheist who said that Peter Singer’s work isn’t valuable because Singer is just contemplating his own feelings. When pressed further, he admitted that he believed that all morality is just a matter of preference, and therefore that normative ethics isn’t really worth thinking carefully about. This is the sort of thing that I am saying moral subjectivism encourages.

Free Will

This post will introduce my views on free will and defend them briefly.

The positions on the existence of free will are usually divided into three types:

  1. Libertarianism: We have free will, and free will is incompatible with determinism.
  2. Compatibilism: We have free will, and free will is compatible with determinism.
  3. Hard Determinism: We do not have free will, and free will is incompatible with determinism.

I take the libertarian view, because we observe that we have free will whenever we deliberate about what to do. When I study for school, I have the ability to decide what I will think about and how carefully I will think about it. I can choose to concentrate on what I am reading or let my focus lapse. If a particular point seems unclear, I can choose whether or not to focus on that point and go through the necessary intellectual steps to arrive at an understanding of it. It is even up to me whether I will continue studying or drop the whole thing and go argue with other people on the internet.

I also observe other people deliberating about what to do. When I ask my boss at work a difficult question about how to perform some task, I can observe that he takes a moment to think and reflect on the various alternatives. I can also observe that people in essentially similar situations frequently make choices that have different moral qualities – if two people are facing essentially the same moral dilemma, one may choose to do the right thing and one may choose to do the wrong thing. Again, if two people are both presented with the same cogent argument against one of their deeply held beliefs, one may choose to consider the argument objectively and the other may choose to evade.

So I have a rather large body of experience that points toward the existence of libertarian free will, and I think that pretty much everyone else is in the same position. I don’t think determinists are necessarily dishonest, because there are certain tricky conceptual arguments and certain initially compelling scientific arguments that might confuse an honest person about the existence of free will, but as far as the positive case for free will goes observation is sufficient to refute determinism.

At the moment, I plan to expand on this in future posts. I want to do three things: (1) elaborate further on the nature of the experience of free will, (2) present negative arguments against determinism rather than merely present positive evidence for free will, and (3) defuse the conceptual and scientific arguments that determinists give. For now, however, I am happy to simply make my own position clear.

Chisholm on A Priori Knowledge

A great many philosophers have claimed that, in addition to mundane a posteriori knowledge about the world, which depends on our having particular experiences, we have a priori knowledge, which is independent of experience insofar as we don’t have to have any particular experience to acquire it.

For example, “something that is red all over is not blue all over” is supposed to be a piece of a priori knowledge. Proponents of a priori knowledge would grant that you need to have experiences to acquire the concepts of redness and blueness, but you don’t need to observe any particular red thing or any particular blue thing to acquire those concepts. Further, once you acquire those concepts, you don’t need to do any more observations to grasp that nothing is ever completely red and completely blue. You can just put the concepts together in your mind and grasp the connection between them, according to the story, and that’s what makes it a priori. 

Naturally, some have been skeptical about whether there is really any such knowledge. After all, how could we get knowledge of universally true propositions about the world without at least going out and performing observations? Part of Chisholm’s reply to skepticism about the a priori in his book Theory of Knowledge is as follows (p. 49):

The general reply to a skepticism which addresses itself to an entire area of knowledge can only be this: we do have the knowledge in question, and therefore, any philosophical theory implying that we do not is false.

While that’s unlikely to satisfy the skeptic, I think it’s one of the more plausible retorts in this area.