The comments to my post about the Hard Problem of Consciousness have spiralled into a long conversation about the Problem of Evil, Free Will, and whether God is in time, and whether God knows the future. I won't try to recap that discussion here (you can go read it yourself if you like), but instead to answer some questions about which were raised, which I had been postponing answering due to being busy with work and job interviews.
St. Steve asks:
How likely or unlikely is that there is something like free will? I read that most contemporary philosophers argue libertarianism, I have also seen that there is a point of view Compatibilist. What do you think is the most plausible?
It seems that those who support the libertarian free will are all dualistic, while a point of view is Compatibilist is a non-reductive materialism of mind.
What is your opinion on these views of free will?
"Libertarian Free Will" is the position that human beings (and maybe other entities) have the ability to make genuine decisions, which could have been otherwise, and that the causal responsibility for that decision is rightly attributed to that person. Causal responsibility must of course be distinguished from moral responsibility, which requires additional factors, such as the person being aware of the consequences of their decision.
"Determinism" is the contrary position that everything we do is determined by certain factors outside of our control, such as God or the laws of physics or our genetic predispositions or whatever. As you can see, there are both theological and materialistic versions of this idea.
"Compatibilism" is the compromise belief that although determinism is true, we nevertheless should be regarded as morally responsible for our actions, because we have a lesser, non-libertarian form of "free will". In other words, even if it was inevitable that we did what we did, because we wanted to do it, and nobody put a gun to our heads, we are (in this view) still morally responsible. ("Morally responsible for what purpose?", one might ask. A human justice system may reasonably disregard these metaphysical issues, but responsibility before God, who sees everything, plausibly does depend on such things.)
Well, it seems to me that compatibilism is a namby-pamby watered-down use of the word free will. When I say Free Will, I mean the full-blown libertarian kind! Now let's ask if it exists.
The first consideration is experiential, somewhat along the lines for my argument for morality. A lot of the time, it feels like we have free will, the ability to make choices and do otherwise than we did. (In other cases, like sneezing, we feel like we had little choice about the matter.) I think this is substantial prima facie evidence for the existence of Free Will, but it is not conclusive. It is not a logical contradiction to feel like you have Free Will when you don't, the way it IS a logical contradiction to feel like you are Conscious when you are not.
Susan Blackmore claims that she no longer feels like she has free will, but this seems like self-hypnosis to bring her experiences in line with her philosophical beliefs. (By the way, I highly recommend her book Conversations in Consciousness, in which she interviews many leading thinkers about what consciousness is.)
The second consideration is Science. Now the laws of Classical Physics were deterministic, meaning that if you know all the positions and momenta of all the particles at one moment of time, you can deduce what happens at any other moment of time in the future or the past. Since most people think they have very limited control over what happened before they were born, this served as a powerful argument against Free Will, at least for Materialists. (A Dualist or an Idealist could of course evade the conclusion by denying that the laws of Classical Physics give a complete description of the world.)
Nowadays we know that Classical Physics is false. Quantum Mechanics appears (at least for all practical purposes, leaving aside Many Worlds and other bizarre interpretations) to be nondeterministic. The outcome of a given experiment can only be predicted statistically, in terms of probabilities. Oddly, this has not resulted in much resurgence in a belief in Free Will, perhaps because it was under attack during the 20th century for other reasons, perhaps because the spotlight has moved on to neurological and psychological considerations.
On a more philosophical note, some might say, if chance determines what I do, that isn't any better than if something beyond my control does it. How is it me acting if my decisions are just a roll of the cosmic dice?
But I think this is based on a confusion. Chance is not an entity any more than fate is an entity. Suppose the laws of physics absolutely required a certain big rubber ball to knock over a glass of wine. It would still be the ball that did it, not fate. Similarly, if your decisions can only be predicted probabilistically, it is still you that does it. The probability is just a measure of how likely you are to do it.
Another possible objection is that the brain is made out of parts. Well before you get to the level where quantum physics is relevant, the parts are small enough that they cannot meaningfully be said to be conscious. A neuron probably does not have mental states (and even if it did, it wouldn't be the same thing as our mind). Certainly atoms have nothing like a mind, that we know of. So even if the atomic motions involve indeterminism, it can't be credited to us; the atoms still control what we do.
At one time this reductionistic argument bothered me quite a bit. However, behind this argument is a strange double-standard. We are to be sufficiently identified with our atoms that we have no identity above and beyond them. And yet, not so identified with them that if the atoms act freely, we act freely. A strict materialist would have to say: I am the atoms I am made out of, and therefore there can be no question of them controlling me as if they I were something else. (On the other hand, if I am something else in addition, who is to say that this something else cannot act in the world?)
Again, the reductionistic argument basically supposes that parts are the only things that are really real, and wholes are just meaningless arrangements of parts which have no real identity or status. But clearly my whole self does exist; what's more it has the rather surprising property of consciousness, which I would not have predicted from the parts alone. If wholes are sufficiently real that they can be conscious, why can't they be real enough to act freely?
Indeed, if the reductionists are right that the whole is identical to its parts, it is equally true (since identity is a symmetric relation) that the parts are identical to the whole. So their behavior is determined by what I do. Thus even a Materialist could perhaps believe in Free Will.
Clearly this is a deep problem, and not one that can be easily resolved by a superficial appeal to Science or Logic. My reflections here are intended to produce aporia, the type of confusion induced by listening to Socrates, who was the wisest of men because at least he knew he didn't know. And, in the absence of knowledge, he fell back on myths about the gods, to explain the moral convictions that were the foundation of his entire project. Those who have read Plato will know what I am talking about.
So at the end of the day, I fall back on my religion for deciding what to believe about Free Will. The fact that God—who knows our inmost being—relates to us as if we were morally responsible creatures who can make real choices, is for me the most decisive indication that we really are. (Of course, the Bible also talks about divine predestination. I believe these passages also describe an important truth, one that is also important to my religious experience. Even if we cannot easily reconcile all of these truths with our puny brains!)
St. Luke P writes:
I appreciate your affirmation of free will and it sounds like you think it is important. I think that it is essential for moral responsibility. Furthermore, free will must be more than a set of counterfactuals about what we would do.(I know this is not your view) Indeed, such a set of counterfactuals could describe a computer which has no free will at all. Rather, to have free will we must truly have "the ability to do otherwise" in these situations. I am blameworthy for giving into temptation in virtue of the fact that it was morally wrong to do so and I had the ability to do otherwise.
Now you say that foreknowledge is not at odds with free will but I think it must be with respect to this kind of free will. If I could genuinely choose X or Y then there must be no "fact of the matter", as you say, about which I will choose. Will implies must.
I understand that you affirm the B theory of time. This is where I think there is a real conflict with free will. The B theory implies that all time is equally real and that the future exists. If the future does exist, as described by the B theory, then all of the facts of the matter are fixed and unchangeable.
Thanks for your comment. I like your phrasing that "The B theory implies all time is equally real and that the future exists", because it avoids the common pitfall of saying that all times exist "now", which true only if we use the word "now" metaphorically. (To say that all places exist equally, is different from saying that all places exist here. On the B theory, the word "now" functions similarly to the word "here".)
But I don't agree at all that free will requires there to be no fact of the matter about what we choose. The only way there could be no fact of the matter, is if the choice isn't made at all, which is the opposite of free will!
There is a fact of the matter about whether I chose to marry my wife St. Nicole, and an observer can know that fact with certainty, but that does not make the decision retroactively unfree. I cannot now change this decision, but my past self could have done otherwise.
When you say "fixed and unchangeable" this equivocates between two meanings of the word fixed. The facts of existence are fixed in the sense that they are definitely real and have a precise nature. In that sense, our choices are fixed. But that is compatible with saying that there are other possible outcomes, which could have existed instead.
And of course, if our future decisions are real, then God can know them in advance. (See here for a general solution to most supposed paradoxes involving Divine Omniscience.)
Added Later: Note that, in Quantum Mechanics, it is also true that "if you know all the positions and momenta of all the particles at one moment of time, you can deduce what happens at any other moment of time in the future or the past". That's because the first part of the sentence is impossible, by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle!