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Presentations

Biosemiotics
Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
 
Colin McGinn

Colin McGinn is an Anglo-American Analytic (AAA) philosopher who presented the standard argument against free will in its classic form in his 1993 book Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry.

He states the problem (p.80)...

This very familiar argument I call the standard argument against free will
The argument is exceedingly familiar, and runs as follows. Either determinism is true or it is not. If it is true, then all our chosen actions are uniquely necessitated by prior states of the world, just like every other event. But then it cannot be the case that we could have acted otherwise, since this would require a possibility determinism rules out. Once the initial conditions are set and the laws fixed, causality excludes genuine freedom.

On the other hand, if indeterminism is true, then, though things could have happened otherwise, it is not the case that we could have chosen otherwise, since a merely random event is no kind of free choice. That some events occur causelessly, or are not subject to law, or only to probabilistic law, is not sufficient for those events to be free choices.

Thus one horn of the dilemma represents choices as predetermined happenings in a predictable causal sequence, while the other construes them as inexplicable lurches to which the universe is randomly prone. Neither alternative supplies what the notion of free will requires, and no other alternative suggests itself. Therefore freedom is not possible in any kind of possible world. The concept contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The problem centres upon the significance of the phrase 'could have done otherwise'. Determinism seems to imply that one could not do otherwise, while indeterminism gives the wrong interpretation to the phrase.

In Problems in Philosophy, McGinn expresses three important ideas as acronyms. The first of his new ideas is TN, for "transcendental naturalism." In Kantian terms, TN sounds like a contradiction, but for McGinn TN helps to clarify four sorts of philosophical question confronting a particular type of cognitive being B: problems, mysteries, illusions, and issues.
A problem is a question to which B can in principle find the answer, and is perhaps designed so to do, for biological or other reasons; or at least is of such a type as B can answer. Everyday life and much of science consists of solving problems – questions that fall within our cognitive bounds. A mystery is a question that does not differ from a problem in point of the naturalness of its subject-matter, but only in respect of the contingent cognitive capacities that B possesses: the mystery is a mystery for that being. An illusion is (or arises from) some kind of pseudo-question, or a question that is so formulated as to suggest an answer of a kind that does not objectively exist. An illusory question is not to be confused with a mysterious one, which latter reflects ill on B, not on the question. An issue is a question, typically of a normative character, about which B creatures may dispute, and with respect to which no scientific theory is suited as an answer – questions of ethics and politics, say.
How is TN "transcendental?"
TN, as I am defining it, incorporates a double naturalism (or anti-non-naturalism — I shall drop this periphrasis from now on): both about reality and about our knowledge of it. The natural world can transcend our knowledge of it precisely because our knowledge is a natural fact about us, in relation to that world. It is a general property of evolved organisms, such as ourselves, to exhibit areas of cognitive weakness or incapacity, resulting from our biological constitution; so it is entirely reasonable to expect naturally based limits to human understanding. We are not gods, cognitively speaking. A creature's mental powers are things in the natural world, with a natural origin, function and structure, and there is no necessity that this part of the world should be capable of taking in the rest. The 'transcendent' component of TN simply gives expression to this naturalism about the mind.

Plainly TN accepts a strong form of realism; in particular, it accepts realism about the nature of the things that cognitive beings think and talk about. While we may be able to refer to certain things, there is no guarantee that we shall be able to develop adequate theories of these things. Put differently, the correct theory of what is referred to, conceived as a set of propositions detailing the nature of those referents, may not belong in the space of theories accessible to the beings under consideration — including human thinkers. So, for TN, there may exist facts about the world that are inaccessible to thinking creatures such as ourselves. Reality is under no epistemic constraint.

McGinn then defines four characteristic patterns of debate in what he calls "philosophical geography," and introduces a second acronym - DIME.
I shall introduce the DIME shape – the shape of the philosophical landscape as it is configured by the underlying how-possible questions. Consider a philosophically problematic concept C, with respect to which we wonder how it is possible that C should apply to the world; so we are going to need to do some philosophy on C if we are to understand what it is all about. Then the DIME shape displays four types of philosophical position that might be taken with respect to C, as follows.

D corresponds to the idea that C must be domesticated, demythologized, defanged, demoted, dessicated. Taken at face-value C presents large problems of understanding and integration, so in order to secure its objective possibility we need to redescribe it in some way. Simple reduction to a relatively unproblematic set of concepts is the standard manouevre here.

The I position is that C-facts are irreducible and indefinable and inexplicable, and we should cultivate an attitude of insouciance towards them. C-propositions state brute facts for which no explanation can be given and for which none should be sought; they are what they are and not another thing. D-style reductionism stems from misplaced monism, obsessive unification.

M stands for magical, miraculous, mystical ... mad. The M believer accepts C-facts at face-value, unlike the D theorist, but he cannot simply take them as inexplicable, like the I adherent — he wants some account of their nature or basis. He seeks a larger picture of the world — a metaphysics — within which C-facts find an intelligible place.

E is for elimination, ejection, extrusion. The E proponent despairs of domestication, balks at irreducibility, and scoffs at magic. His position is that C-facts look impossible because that is what they are: they are either prescientific remnants or logical absurdities of some sort. The entire C-ontology is an enormous illusion. C-talk should thus be banned, at least in serious contexts.

McGinn's final acronym jargon tries to capture his analytical language philosopher sense that "the grammar of human languages determines the scope and limits of the human language faculty, a particular organ of the mind. What TN ideally requires, then, is something to play the role of grammar in delimiting what is accessible to reason, where this something fixes boundaries across which philosophical thought cannot travel. He introduces a framework for thought that he calls CALM.
The CALM acronym stands for 'combinatorial atomism with lawlike mappings'. This is intended to capture a certain mode of thought, suited to certain subject-matters: that in which an array of primitive elements is subject to specified principles of combination which generate determinate relations between complexes of those elements. This combinatorial mode of thought, which yields a certain kind of novelty in the domain at issue, and proceeds in bottom-up style, may represent contemporaneous relations between the structures dealt with, as well as dynamic relations over time. The essence of it is to yield understanding of the domain, especially its generative aspects, by means of transparent relations of composition between elements: we can see, on the basis of a CALM theory, exactly how — by what principles — items in the domain of study are related to each other. Put differently, if we already know, pretheoretically, that there exist principled relations between these items, a CALM theory tells us what the nature of these relations is — it specifies the manner in which the domain is structured. To grasp the theory is thus to understand the domain.
In his 2002 book, The Making of a Philosopher, McGinn describes CALM...
"Roughly speaking, you understand something when you know what parts it has and how they are put together, as well as how the whole changes over time; then you have rendered the phenomenon in question--CALM." (p.206)

"Natural entities are basically complex systems of interacting parts that evolve over time as a result of various causal influences. This is obviously true of inanimate physical objects, which are spatial complexes made of molecules and atoms and quarks, and subject to the physical forces of nature. But it is also true of biological organisms, in which now the parts include kidneys, hearts, lungs, and the cells that compose these. The same abstract architecture applies to language also: Sentences are complexes of simpler elements (words and phrases) put together according to grammatical rules. Mathematical entities such as triangles, equations, and numbers are also complexes decomposable into simpler elements. In all these cases we can appropriately bring to bear the CALM method of thinking: We conceptualize the entities in question by resolving them into parts and articulating their mode of arrangement."

"Find the atoms and the laws of combination and evolution, and then derive the myriad of complex objects you find in nature. If incomprehension is a state of anxiety or chaos, then CALM is what brings calm. Question: Does CALM work in philosophy?"

"In Problems in Philosophy I argue that ...[t}here are yawning gaps between [some] phenomena and the more basic phenomena they proceed from, so that we cannot apply the CALM format to bring sense to what we observe. The essence of a philosophical problem is the unexplained leap, the step from one thing to another without any conception of the bridge that supports the step. For example, a free decision involves a transition from a set of beliefs and desires to a particular choice; but this choice is not dictated by what precedes it—hence it seems like an unmediated leap. The choice, that is, cannot be accounted for simply in terms of the beliefs and desires that form the input to it, just as conscious states cannot be accounted for in terms of the neural processes they emanate from. In both cases we seem to be presented with something radically novel, issuing from nowhere, as if a new act of creation were necessary to bring it into being. And this is the mark of our lack of understanding. The existence of animal life seems like an eruption from nowhere (or an act of God) until we understand the process of evolution by natural selection; we can then begin to see how the transitions operate, from the simple to the more complex. But in philosophy we typically lack the right kind of explanatory theory, and hence find ourselves deeply puzzled by how the world is working." (p.209)

"This message is not very congenial to the optimistic philosopher who wants to solve the deep problems that brought him or her to philosophy. For I am saying that this is a futile aim; my book could equally have been called The Futility of Philosophy..." (p.210)

McGinn's CALM methodology actually seems quite congenial for understanding the classic "free-will" problem, partly because of the strong analogy with the process of evolution by gene variation and natural selection that works for him as an explanatory theory.

For what is Freedom but chance "combinatorial atoms," possible thoughts or actions that can be combined in new ways as "alternative possibilities?"

And what is Will but the choice of an adequately determined mind acting in accordance with its character and values, making "lawlike mappings" of those fortuitous opportunities?

In the Cogito model, “Free Will” combines two distinct conceptual “atoms.” Free is the chance and randomness of the Micro Mind. Will is the adequate determinism of the Macro Mind. And these occur in a temporal sequence.

But McGinn has decided that "free will" must be declared a "mystery." Coming back to his statement of the problem in chapter 5, Free Will, and the phrase 'could have done otherwise,' he says (p.82) that domestication (D) consists in assimilating free will to some model, and a popular model is to invoke quantum mechanical indeterminism.
"When we say that an agent could have acted otherwise we must mean that the totality of prior conditions was consistent with any of a range of possible outcomes, so that a replication of that totality would not determine the choice made. We can preserve the modality only if we adopt a radically indeterministic model of choice. Thus it is sometimes held that quantum indeterminacy must be the root of freedom: random events at the subatomic level in the brain are the origin of free will. These occur causelessly and are then amplified into grosser processes in brain tissue. Since the initiating event was not necessitated by the prior state of the world, we can say that the agent could have acted otherwise."
Here McGinn has made the familiar error of seeing chance as the direct cause of action.
"The latter type of theory is best seen as a desperate response to the kind of problem just mentioned: we need groundfloor randomness in order to secure the independence of choice from what precedes it. Here the trouble is just that all we get by this manouevre is mere randomness, not the idea of an agent doing something. He is, as it were, the passive victim of the quantum leaps that erupt without cause in his brain matter. We lose the idea that the agent is in control of his actions; he is just the puppet of a randomness that occurs throughout the physical world. If we are to say that free choice is undetermined, it cannot be so in the way that quantum events are."
As to irreducibility (I) theses, McGinn says they are tailored to respect the sui generis status of the failure of domesticating (D) theories.
"We can, if we like, introduce some semi-technical jargon in order to mark the distinctions we commonsensically make, calling free action a case of 'agent causation' rather than 'event causation'! But we should not suppose that this provides any widening of the explanatory circle: we are simply recording the irreducible character of the power to act freely. The freedom modality is just one more specific kind of possibility to be added to the others we have to recognize — physical possibility, logical possibility, legal possibility, and so forth." (p.83)
For an M explanation, McGinn sees free will as some kind of miracle. Since free will is a causa sui, something the medievalists thought was only possible for God, this is a plausible view.
Free will is perhaps the natural home of the non-naturalist. For surely, he will say, there is nothing in the experienced world that is quite so dramatically removed from the fixed routines of causality and predictability as an act of free choice. Each such action is itself a small miracle, contravening the dictates of the nomological order. The free agent has the power to hold back the tides of determinism, asserting his ascendancy over nature. In free choice we demonstrate the other-worldly aspect of our being. Choice is the natural expression of the soul, that supernatural entity that stands apart from the mechanics of matter. Thus religions typically see in choice our closest connection with God and his purposes: our faculty of choice has been divinely installed, with freedom built into it, so that we can live an ethically evaluable life. Not surprisingly, then, no naturalistic account can be given of the nature of freedom, and we sense the operations of the occult when we try to scrutinize it. Free choice does, indeed, resemble divine creation itself, in bringing something from nothing without prior constraint. We can only marvel at the miracle of freedom, never understand it.
Finally the elimination (E) pattern of philosophical debate suggests free will should be banished as an illusion.
Elimination has seemed to many to be the only exit from the problem: the dilemma is unsolvable and freedom accordingly an illusion. The truth of general determinism by itself shows that there is no such thing as free action, so we need not even consider whether freedom is possible in an indeterministic universe. The concept of freedom may be central to the commonsense view of human action, and may be indispensable to moral evaluation, but it has been shown that the idea must be baseless, so we should eliminate it from our thought. No satisfactory sense can be made of the idea that agents could have acted otherwise.
So where does McGinn wind up, with his TN and CALM approaches to the problem of free will?
"As hitherto, one of the chief merits of TN is avoidance of the DIME trap; it provides an escape from the usual unpalatable alternatives. But before we contemplate this method of escape we need to assure ourselves that free will is not already ruled out by any of the standard arguments; we need, in particular, to consider the old question of the compatibility of freedom with determinism. For TN has no power to save what can be demonstrated to be impossible or nonexistent. The question, then, is whether the kind of necessitation consequent upon the truth of determinism is consistent with the kind of possibility required by the freedom modality: could the agent have done otherwise given that he had to do what he did? Can the existence of genuine alternatives be reconciled with the fixity entailed by determinism?

"What TN says is that we are fundamentally ignorant about what freedom consists in, so that we are prone to fill the gap in our understanding with misleading models and metaphors, which undermine what they are designed to explain. The neural correlates of choice, as we conceive them, do not supply us with a theory of what choice is; so freedom cannot be undermined by observing that these correlates are not themselves free — that would be a confusion of levels. We simply do not understand how the necessities of matter are related to the possibilities of will, so all inferences from the former to the latter are suspect. In particular, we cannot infer that the will is not free from the fact that all actions are physically necessitated: the ordinary notion does not deny this, and physical processes provide no explanatory model of the kind of thing the will is. The danger in this subject is to assume that we know more about what constitutes the will than we really do, subsuming it under concepts that misrepresent its nature."

And what of CALM?
"The CALM conjecture has something to say about this: our trouble (or part of it) is that the relation in question — that between desire and decision is not representable in CALM terms. There are two reasons why not. First, our notion of the lawlike fails at this point, as does our notion of causality: the production of decision is quite unlike the production of motion and the like — even to speak of 'production' here rings false. Second, the combinatorial paradigm runs aground in this case: decisions are not compounds of antecedent desires and other attitudes, nor of brain states. Undoubtedly there are links here, but they cannot be made unmysterious by means of CALM relations. Hence the feeling that decision involves radical novelty, a transition to something of another order altogether. This signals our inability to bring CALM to the phenomena."

Yet it must not be forgotten that free will is a natural phenomenon, rooted in biology. Children acquire it spontaneously, presumably by way of their innate endowment. Human beings have the capacity to digest food by virtue of mechanisms inside them; similarly they have the capacity to act freely in virtue of their biological nature. That we understand the former but are completely clueless about the latter is no reason to suppose any difference at the level of ontology; the difference is an epistemological one. As Chomsky says, Martians might find the free will problem trivial in comparison to the digestion problem, given their cognitive slant. The capacity to act freely develops in us by a series of natural steps, implemented somehow by structures in our nervous system, rather as our capacity to speak does — indeed, the two capacities are interwoven. What does not develop naturally in us is the capacity to understand this capacity. One might even be forgiven for suspecting that we develop capacities for not understanding free will, these being geared to phenomena of quite other types. Hence we style the problem 'philosophical'.

Works
Can We solve the Mind-Body Problem?, Mind, Vol. icviii, no. 391, July 1989
For Teachers
For Scholars
Free Will, chapter 5 of Problems in Philosophy, by Colin McGinn, Blackwell, 1993.
I The Problem: Freedom and the Causal Order

The problem of freedom is that the concept can appear to impose requirements that cannot be reconciled with any available conception of how the world works. No matter how we conceive of the course of events we cannot find room for the idea of a free choice. Thus the concept strikes us, upon reflection, as inherently paradoxical. The question is whether we can resolve the apparent paradox and preserve the possibility of freedom. In this chapter I shall ask whether TN can play a part in this salvage effort. Does our perplexity result from deep ignorance about the real nature of free choice? Are we, indeed, compelled, by the modes of thought natural to us, to conceive of freedom in ways that are ill-suited to its true character, forcing it into a conceptual framework that (misleadingly) compromises its objective reality?

The topic of free will is connected to our previous three topics. Only conscious beings are capable of acting freely; though the ground of this necessary condition is far from clear. The agent of free choice is evidently the self; though the relation between self and choice is unperspicuous. And the operations of will have meaning or intentional content; though what determines this is obscure. A free decision is a conscious event, on the part of a person, bearing semantic properties. Thus it is surrounded on all sides by theoretical recalcitrance, as well as carrying troubles peculiar to itself. It lies at the dead centre of what perplexes us. Despite the puzzles free will presents, however, it is deeply embedded in our ordinary intuitive folk psychology. All human interaction, and self-reflection, is suffused with the idea of freedom; there is nothing marginal or exceptional about it. Freedom is a property we take to be instantiated with enormous frequency. Not for nothing did the existentialists make freedom the essence of our nature.1 Doubtless the concept develops in us as part of our innate conceptual endowment, conditioning our whole conception of mind and action. Thus we take it for granted that human beings are confronted by a range of genuine alternatives, between which they must choose, and that their choices are free in the sense that they could have selected a distinct alternative from that which they actually selected. The agent is not compelled or constrained to act as he or she does, save in exceptional cases. We may be strongly inclined to do certain things, which makes it hard to do something else, yet we take ourselves to have the freedom to do what we are disinclined to do. We have a certain power to defy our natural propensities. So, at least, our commonsense view of action stoutly maintains: freedom is as real as consciousness or the self or meaning.

The trouble is that there seems to be a simple argument that shows that our prized freedom must be an illusion. The argument is exceedingly familiar, and runs as follows. Either determinism is true or it is not. If it is true, then all our chosen actions are uniquely necessitated by prior states of the world, just like every other event. But then it cannot be the case that we could have acted otherwise, since this would require a possibility determinism rules out. Once the initial conditions are set and the laws fixed, causality excludes genuine freedom. On the other hand, if indeterminism is true, then, though things could have happened otherwise, it is not the case that we could have chosen otherwise, since a merely random event is no kind of free choice.2 That some events occur causelessly, or are not subject to law, or only to probabilistic law, is not sufficient for those events to be free choices. Thus one horn of the dilemma represents choices as predetermined happenings in a predictable causal sequence, while the other construes them as inexplicable lurches to which the universe is randomly prone. Neither alternative supplies what the notion of free will requires, and no other alternative suggests itself. Therefore freedom is not possible in any kind of possible world. The concept contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The problem centres upon the significance of the phrase 'could have done otherwise'. Determinism seems to imply that one could not do otherwise, while indeterminism gives the wrong interpretation to the phrase. Much has been written about this notion of possibility and its compatibility or otherwise with different global conceptions of the flow of events.10 The problem has been to find a characterization of the freedom modality that shows how free choice is possible. What kind of power is signified by the idea that agents need not choose as they do? How can the natural world contain such a power? This is a question about a certain faculty that human beings possess, a certain natural attribute: what is the right theory of the structure and operation of this faculty? When an object possesses a power of a certain sort, expressible in modal terms, this will be grounded in certain objective properties of the object; the power depends upon the nature of what has it. Similarly, then, the freedom modality must have some inner nature and be related intelligibly to other properties of agents. It must, in particular, be somehow implemented by the machinery that implements our other psychological faculties — the machinery of the brain. And it must have a nature that is compatible with the facts about how human bodies work, deterministically or otherwise. The philosophical difficulty has been to produce such a characterization of the freedom modality.

Tautologically, to produce a characterization of something is to generate from one's actual conceptual scheme a set of propositions meeting certain epistemic conditions. So the problem can be said to be this: our conceptual scheme does not appear to yield a set of concepts that successfully captures the nature of the freedom modality. Such concepts as it does yield tend to make freedom look paradoxical and impossible — as with our concepts of the determined and the undetermined. By now we know what diagnosis TN will proffer of this state of affairs: in trying to produce a theory of the nature of freedom we run up against the limits and biases of our own cognitive system. Freedom is a phenomenon we can refer to but we cannot understand; the necessary theoretical concepts and principles fall outside the class of those that come naturally to us. Thus we fall into philosophical perplexity and cudgel our brains to find a way out. Straining at the bars of our cognitive cage, we concoct would-be solutions that never fully satisfy us, instead of accepting our cognitive predicament for what it is: so says TN. But before we explore the prospects for a TN position on free will further, we need to survey the relevant DIME options, noting their respective demerits.

II DIME and Free Will

Domesticating treatments of free will attempt to assimilate it to some independent model or paradigm of how events come about. The nexus of decision is taken to be just a special case of some other type of natural nexus; and the modality involved is not fundamentally different from other modalities represented in our scheme of concepts. Such reductive accounts take either a deterministic or an indeterministic form. The former type of theory insists that prior states of the world, consisting essentially in psychological states of the agent, are causally sufficient for a specific choice to be made, so that freedom comes out as a certain kind of causal sequence — that kind which features an appropriate set of mental antecedents. Freedom consists in causation by one's desires and beliefs.10 The causal relation itself is nothing special; what differentiates free choice from its opposite is what does the causing. The latter type of theory rejects the attempt to reconcile freedom with determinism, claiming instead that only an acausal model can do justice to the freedom modality. When we say that an agent could have acted otherwise we must mean that the totality of prior conditions was consistent with any of a range of possible outcomes, so that a replication of that totality would not determine the choice made. We can preserve the modality only if we adopt a radically indeterministic model of choice. Thus it is sometimes held that quantum indeterminacy must be the root of freedom: random events at the subatomic level in the brain are the origin of free will.10 These occur causelessly and are then amplified into grosser processes in brain tissue. Since the initiating event was not necessitated by the prior state of the world, we can say that the agent could have acted otherwise.

These are well-worn attempts to say what freedom consists in, and their difficulties are equally well-worn. The former type of theory does not give a sufficiently robust sense to the idea of the power to act otherwise, or gives it no sense at all, since it assimilates decision to any other kind of causal nexus. To say that one's actions are caused by one's beliefs and desires in the way that striking glass causes it to break does not allow room for the essential idea that the action is not necessitated by the beliefs and desires: the freedom modality drops out, and it cannot be reconstructed from the materials permitted by this type of account. The latter type of theory is best seen as a desperate response to the kind of problem just mentioned: we need groundfloor randomness in order to secure the independence of choice from what precedes it. Here the trouble is just that all we get by this manouevre is mere randomness, not the idea of an agent doing something. He is, as it were, the passive victim of the quantum leaps that erupt without cause in his brain matter. We lose the idea that the agent is in control of his actions; he is just the puppet of a randomness that occurs throughout the physical world. If we are to say that free choice is undetermined, it cannot be so in the way that quantum events are. So neither type of theory provides a satisfactory explanation of the power to act freely. The assimilations are deformations.6

Irreducibility theses are tailored to respect the sui generis status suggested by the failure of domesticating theories. Never explain; always distinguish. Our problem arises, the I theorist says, from trying to reduce what should be taken as primitive and self-intelligible: the freedom modality should not be forced into an alien conceptual mould; it is what it is and not another thing. Ordinary thought and speech attribute the power to act otherwise, treating free agents as a special ontological category; we should simply take this at face-value, resisting misplaced assimilations.7 We can, if we like, introduce some semi-technical jargon in order to mark the distinctions we commonsensically make, calling free action a case of 'agent causation' rather than 'event causation'.8 But we should not suppose that this provides any widening of the explanatory circle: we are simply recording the irreducible character of the power to act freely. The freedom modality is just one more specific kind of possibility to be added to the others we have to recognize — physical possibility, logical possibility, legal possibility, and so forth.

Here the central objection is that this position simply fails to meet the argument that seemed to put free will in jeopardy. Are human actions determined or are they not? If they are, then it is just not true that agents could do differently, no matter how irreducible the concept may be. But if they are not, then human action is just so much random meandering. We need a way of avoiding this argument, and the I position, as so far stated, is silent on the question. And this is before we get onto the usual questions about emergence and supervenience: how does the power to act freely relate to the biological nature of the agent, his brain apparatus, the law-governed sequences of bio-chemical events that occupy his interior? There are genuine explanatory questions here, and the I position dodges them.

Free will is perhaps the natural home of the non-naturalist. For surely, he will say, there is nothing in the experienced world that is quite so dramatically removed from the fixed routines of causality and predictability as an act of free choice. Each such action is itself a small miracle, contravening the dictates of the nomological order. The free agent has the power to hold back the tides of determinism, asserting his ascendancy over nature. In free choice we demonstrate the other-worldly aspect of our being. Choice is the natural expression of the soul, that supernatural entity that stands apart from the mechanics of matter. Thus religions typically see in choice our closest connection with God and his purposes: our faculty of choice has been divinely installed, with freedom built into it, so that we can live an ethically evaluable life. Not surprisingly, then, no naturalistic account can be given of the nature of freedom, and we sense the operations of the occult when we try to scrutinize it. Free choice does, indeed, resemble divine creation itself, in bringing something from nothing without prior constraint. We can only marvel at the miracle of freedom, never understand it.

This non-naturalism shares the defects of other attempts to invoke magical facts, but it also fails to answer the original argument. Are our supernatural souls determined or are they not? They may be immaterial and divinely tinged, but the same dilemma confronts them, as it does God himself. The anti-freedom argument needs to be undermined, and nothing in the present conception offers a way of doing that.

Elimination has seemed to many to be the only exit from the problem: the dilemma is unsolvable and freedom accordingly an illusion. The truth of general determinism by itself shows that there is no such thing as free action, so we need not even consider whether freedom is possible in an indeterministic universe. The concept of freedom may be central to the commonsense view of human action, and may be indispensable to moral evaluation, but it has been shown that the idea must be baseless, so we should eliminate it from our thought. No satisfactory sense can be made of the idea that agents could have acted otherwise.10

III TN and Free Will

TN says that there are such things as free choices but that we can form no adequate conception of their nature; the natural principles that underlie the power to do otherwise do not come within our theory-constructing capacities. We try to apply what concepts we have to the phenomenon, but they do not supply any satisfactory model of what is going on; our concepts of the undetermined, in particular, fail to do justice to the freedom modality. We are signally weak, constitutionally so, when it comes to forming concepts that would explain the nature of choice. Our philosophical perplexities result from this cognitive lack.

Is this position plausible? Can it help alleviate the conceptual pressures that threaten to destroy freedom? Well, there have been notable adherents of a TN position about the will. Hume writes, as part of his general realist agnosticism: > The motion of our body follows upon the command of our will. Of this we are every moment conscious. But the means, by which this is effected; the energy, by which the will performs so extraordinary an operation; of this we are so far from being immediately conscious, that it must for ever escape our most diligent inquiry ... Were we empowered, by a secret wish, to remove mountains, or control the planets in their orbit; this extensive authority would not be more extraordinary, nor more beyond our comprehension ... We learn the influence of our will from experience alone. And experience only teaches us, how one event constantly follows another; without instructing us in the secret connection, which binds them together, and renders them inseparable.10 Kant, famously, holds that the will exists 'in a twofold sense', phenomenally and noumenally, saying:

My soul, viewed from the latter standpoint, cannot indeed be known by means of speculative reason (and still less through empirical observation); and freedom as a property of a being to which I attribute effects in the sensible world, is therefore also not knowable in any such fashion ... But though I cannot know, I can yet think freedom; that is to say, the representation of it is at least not self-contradictory, provided due account be taken of our critical distinction between the two modes of representation, the sensible and the intellectual, and of the resulting limitation of the pure concepts of understanding and of the principles which flow from them.10
Chomsky frequently cites the operations of will as belonging to his class of mysteries, which is why the theory of linguistic performance is so undeveloped and jejune, in contrast to theories of competence.12 He says: 'Even the relevant concepts seem lacking; certainly, no intellectually satisfying principles have been proposed that have explanatory force, though the questions are very old. It is not excluded that human science-forming capacities simply do not extend to this domain, or any domain involving the exercise of will, so that for humans, these questions will always be shrouded in mystery.'13 Elsewhere, referring to the creative aspect of language use, which he connects with freedom, he writes:
One possible reason for the lack of success in solving it or even presenting sensible ideas about it is that it is not within the range of human intellectual capacities: It is either 'too difficult', given the nature of our capacities, or beyond their limits altogether. There is some reason to suspect that this may be so, though we do not know enough about human intelligence or the properties of the problem to be sure. We are able to devise theories to deal with strict determinacy and with randomness. But these concepts do not seem appropriate to Descartes's problem, and it may be that the relevant concepts are not accessible to us. A Martian scientist, with a mind different from ours, might regard this problem as trivial, and wonder why humans never seem to hit on the obvious way of solving it. This observer might also be amazed at the ability of every human child to acquire language, something that seems to him incomprehensible, requiring divine intervention, because the elements of the language faculty lie beyond his conceptual range.14
This perfectly expresses the TN standpoint and might be taken as a text for the general position we are exploring. The Chomskian hypothesis is that our incomprehension regarding the will, though probably terminal, is a product of our peculiar cognitive makeup, the conceptual resources contingently at our command; it does not indicate any objective profundity or divine design. The problem stems from the particular properties of human cognition. Some science details the principles governing the will, including its relation to our biological nature, but that science is not available to our theoretical faculties. Thus we label the problem philosophical'.

As hitherto, one of the chief merits of TN is avoidance of the DIME trap; it provides an escape from the usual unpalatable alternatives. But before we contemplate this method of escape we need to assure ourselves that free will is not already ruled out by any of the standard arguments; we need, in particular, to consider the old question of the compatibility of freedom with determinism. For TN has no power to save what can be demonstrated to be impossible or nonexistent. The question, then, is whether the kind of necessitation consequent upon the truth of determinism is consistent with the kind of possibility required by the freedom modality: could the agent have done otherwise given that he had to do what he did? Can the existence of genuine alternatives be reconciled with the fixity entailed by determinism?

It can certainly seem like we have a straight contradiction here, since what is necessarily not so cannot be possibly so; but modal truths are notoriously tricky and equivocal, so let us see whether we can remove the appearance of contradiction. To say that an action is free is, I suggest, to make a relational claim: freedom is freedom from certain things. We can express this idea in terms of supervenience: the action is not supervenient on the body of facts in question, in the sense that the action could be different without that body of facts being different. Now the crucial question is whether the notion of freedom requires nonsupervenience on all facts or only on some. For, if it requires global nonsupervenience, then indeed it is hard to reconcile freedom with determinism; but, if it requires only a more local nonsupervenience, then it might be consistent with some varieties of determinism and not others. Then two sets of facts on which choices might or might not supervene are physical facts and mental facts. If you fix all the physical facts, do you thereby fix the choices? And if you fix all the mental facts, not counting the choices themselves, do you fix the choices? In other words, must physical duplicates perform the same actions, and must mental duplicates do so? My suggestion is this: the ordinary notion of freedom requires mental nonsupervenience, and this is not ruled out by any fundamental principle, but it does not require physical nonsupervenience, which is fortunate because that does seem hard to deny. It does not, on this view, follow from the necessity for physical duplicates to act in the same way that they are not free, but that would follow if it were true of mental duplicates: however, it is not true. Let me now defend this suggestion.

I think that when we say a person acted freely we mean that, given his set of desires and other attitudes, his choice was not yet fixed. His desires inclined him, perhaps strongly, to make a certain choice, but in fact it was really possible for him to resist those desires and do something else. He could have done otherwise, that is, relative to his total set of attitudes: they do not necessitate a particular action. The ability to overrule desire is what the ordinary notion is mainly about. This does not imply anything about the nonsupervenience of choice upon the agent's total physical condition; it is strictly a claim about psychology, about the looseness between desire and choice. So it is not incompatible with physical determinism. Two agents who are alike mentally may perform different actions and there be a corresponding physical difference between them, one that has no manifestation at the level of desire. But it is far from clear that ordinary ascriptions of freedom are intended to be incompatible with physical supervenience: no such recondite thought seems implied. Thus it is consistent with freedom, as we ordinarily conceive of it, that physical duplicates must act identically. The folk psychology of `free' is neutral on the question of physical determinism.

This claim is bound to seem unsatisfactory if we insist, misguidedly, on construing physical supervenience as an explanatory relation. Focusing on the underlying physiology, and supposing this to be what the exercise of will really consists in, we will find it hard to preserve the notion of an agent's free choice. But it is a mistake to think that the nature of choice is revealed in what it supervenes upon. There is no reason to suppose that the principles of choice are constructable from its physical supervenience base.15 What TN says is that we are fundamentally ignorant about what freedom consists in, so that we are prone to fill the gap in our understanding with misleading models and metaphors, which undermine what they are designed to explain. The neural correlates of choice, as we conceive them, do not supply us with a theory of what choice is; so freedom cannot be undermined by observing that these correlates are not themselves free — that would be a confusion of levels. We simply do not understand how the necessities of matter are related to the possibilities of will, so all inferences from the former to the latter are suspect. In particular, we cannot infer that the will is not free from the fact that all actions are physically necessitated: the ordinary notion does not deny this, and physical processes provide no explanatory model of the kind of thing the will is. The danger in this subject is to assume that we know more about what constitutes the will than we really do, subsuming it under concepts that misrepresent its nature.16

I said just now that the essence of freedom is the 'looseness' that obtains between choice and desire. This is the point at which we reach for the idea of the undetermined, but quickly find that this leads only to an abyss of incomprehension. The CALM conjecture has something to say about this: our trouble (or part of it) is that the relation in question — that between desire and decision is not representable in CALM terms. There are two reasons why not. First, our notion of the lawlike fails at this point, as does our notion of causality: the production of decision is quite unlike the production of motion and the like — even to speak of 'production' here rings false. Second, the combinatorial paradigm runs aground in this case: decisions are not compounds of antecedent desires and other attitudes, nor of brain states. Undoubtedly there are links here, but they cannot be made unmysterious by means of CALM relations. Hence the feeling that decision involves radical novelty, a transition to something of another order altogether. This signals our inability to bring CALM to the phenomena.

Yet it must not be forgotten that free will is a natural phenomenon, rooted in biology. Children acquire it spontaneously, presumably by way of their innate endowment. Human beings have the capacity to digest food by virtue of mechanisms inside them; similarly they have the capacity to act freely in virtue of their biological nature. That we understand the former but are completely clueless about the latter is no reason to suppose any difference at the level of ontology; the difference is an epistemological one.17 As Chomsky says, Martians might find the free will problem trivial in comparison to the digestion problem, given their cognitive slant. The capacity to act freely develops in us by a series of natural steps, implemented somehow by structures in our nervous system, rather as our capacity to speak does — indeed, the two capacities are interwoven. What does not develop naturally in us is the capacity to understand this capacity. One might even be forgiven for suspecting that we develop capacities for not understanding free will, these being geared to phenomena of quite other types. Hence we style the problem 'philosophical'.

Finally, some remarks about how TN bears upon our practice of praise and blame. Kant writes: 'Morality does not, indeed, require that freedom should be understood, but only that it should not contradict itself, and so should at least allow of being thought, and that as thus thought it should place no obstacle in the way of a free act (viewed in another relation) likewise conforming to the mechanism of nature.'18 Paraphrasing, Kant's point is that rational praise and blame require only that we know free will to exist, not that we grasp its nature. This is clearly correct, but the inadequacy of our understanding of freedom, and our propensity to distort it when we attempt to frame a theory of its nature, are bound to affect our sense of the justification of praise and blame. Ethical evaluation depends upon something murky and elusive to us, lying athwart our inbuilt categories of understanding. It is thus natural (though mistaken) to entertain sceptical suspicions about free will, and hence the moral and political practices that presuppose its reality. Such suspicions might be allayed by the assumption of a divine authority who vouches for the existence of what we cannot comprehend, but in the absence of this assurance doubts are only to be expected. Perhaps, however, a clear acknowlegement of "IN about freedom can help keep these doubts at bay: for we can explain their prevalence without misconstruing or exaggerating their import. If our theoretical failings in respect of the phenomenon are seen for what they are, namely results of our specific cognitive deficiencies, not symptoms of objective incoherence, then we can continue to accept, at a reflective level, what we spontaneously believe — that human agents are free and responsible. We need not succumb to eliminativist doubts. Accepting TN can thus help us preserve ethical evaluation, with all that that implies, while agreeing that it depends upon something that necessarily escapes our theoretical comprehension.

NOTES

1 See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Freedom, according to Sartre, is intimately bound up with consciousness and intentionality.
2 I am not endorsing this move from the undetermined to the random, but it is natural to feel its pull when we try – contrary to the spirit of TN – to give positive theoretical content to the category of the undetermined.
3 See the collection Essays on Freedom of Action, ed. Ted Honderich.
4 See Davidson, 'Freedom to Act'.
5 See John Eccles and Karl Popper, The Self and its Brain.
6 See Galen Strawson, Freedom and Belief, Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere, chapter 7.
7 See P. F. Strawson, 'Freedom and Resentment'.
8 Davidson discusses this in 'Agency'.
9 I suspect that a large proportion of the thinking population currently accepts this: here eliminativism has made its way into the mainstream – along with atheism.
10 Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 64-5.
11 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 28.
12 In this respect, as in others, Chomsky follows the example of Descartes: see Language and Problems of Knowledge, p. 140.
13 Chomsky, Reflections on Language, p. 25.
14 Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge, pp. 151-2.
15 This is really just to insist upon the explanatory autonomy of the special sciences – despite a general supervenience on the physical.
16 This is particularly true with respect to the causal concepts we apply to the mind. The concept of cause, properly understood, is highly schematic, and there is thus a persistent tendency to thicken it in the direction of paradigms that may not fit the case we are considering. Certainly, it is a mistake to inflate the common application of causal concepts to mental and physical phenomena into a theory of the workings of the mind. That beliefs and desires cause actions tells us next to nothing about the principles involved; it makes no significant dent in our theoretical ignorance.
17 I am not, of course, denying that choices are mental and digestion is physical; I mean only that their relative mysteriousness is a purely epistemological matter. The same point could be made about our general sense that the mind is somehow intrinsically odder than the body.
18 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 29.


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