SocraticGadfly: The varieties of free will – and determinism – not worth discussing

December 24, 2014

The varieties of free will – and determinism – not worth discussing

To riff on Dan Dennett, in part, with that title, that's my take on two paired essays by the same person, Gregg D. Caruso, a professor of philosophy at Corning Community College.

Somewhat in the first, and even more in the second, essay, he insists that free will — or certain types of free will — are connected with what he calls retributive justice.

(In all of this, I'm trying to practice the principle of charity to suss out the argument that I think Caruso actually is trying to make, which is discussed near the end. That said, I've only gotten there through repeated comments by him, and others. And, if I'm coming to a wrong conclusion by that principle of charity, then we have a bigger issue.)

That right there, the retributive justice, sounds like we're in John Rawls territory, but with the addition of explicitly connecting this to free will.

In response to the second essay, specifically, and in connection with the issue of "retributive justice," I set out a laundry list of both logical and empirical or epistemological objections.

The logical one is that there is no logically necessary connection between the two. And, I wasn't alone on this, either. I said:
There may (or may not) be empirical connections, based on psychology; hence my references to neuroscience. But, that’s a different matter. 
It’s like reading Rawls as if Rawls trying to justify his ideas by appeal to certain versions of free will. And, what Rawls says about issues of ethics and justice has no logically necessary connection with free will. 
I can be a hardcore determinist, yet still believe in the value of retributive justice.
I can be a compatibilist, and believe in retributive justice. I can be a libertarian free willer and believe in… I can be some sort of free will optimist-skeptic and believe … I can be like I actually am, thinking the whole free will “versus” determinism issue wrongly framed ….
and believe in retributive justice. 
Or, I can be any of the above, and reject that idea. 
Or, I can be any of the above, and reject the idea of objective morality in general.

His response?

Essentially to offer a stipulative definition of free will. 

Well, if someone wants to put forth a stipulative definition of free will that insists it contains free-will actions for which one can be held morally accountable, then I guess ethics and free will are logically connected, especially if one insists that that's a two-way if-and-only-if connection.

The two-way direction of an if-and-only-if is part of the key here.

Let's take the three main schools of normative ethics — consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics.

The details of how to be ethical in consequentialism and deontological ethics are compatible with any school of thought on volition from the hardest of classical determinists to the most libertarian of free willers. Virtue ethics, in that it lays stress on the individual more, and the psychological stance of the individual, is seemingly incompatible with full-on determinism.

But, two of three major schools of normative ethics say that claims that ethical actions in general must be linked to free will are simply wrong.

And, given that justice is a subset of ethics, two of three major schools of normative ethics say that claims that ethical actions in general must be linked to free will are simply wrong.

Some people may think that a hard determinism dehumanizes people.

Actually not, or at least not necessarily. As long as determinism is applied to theories of ethics in a non-Randian way, it should treat all people as equally human. What that means for all people may be different than in a free will system, but, still, it's not proposing to treat all people like livestock or something.

That said, back to Caruso.

There seems to be further deck-stacking. And, rather than try to shoehorn comments into a 500-word limit, there's my blog post, right here!

First, Caruso goes on to sometimes talk about "harsh retributive justice" or "just deserts." It's almost like he's at a pipe organ that has stops and ranks that are all conservative dogwhistles of some sort.

And, to boot, I think he knows that.

He talks about conservatives who believe in free will having harsher views on “just desserts” than those who don’t.

But, he doesn’t talk about political liberals and their stances on justice being influenced, or not, by their thoughts on free will

I doubt that most liberals reject free will. Rather, it’s either that they think it’s more attenuated by circumstances than conservatives do — but NOT obliterated by circumstance.

Related? An old chicken or egg argument — for conservatives, does insistence on free will come first, or a just world? To be honest, I don’t most conservatives even consider that.

The fact that Caruso only posts analysis of conservatives' relationship to free will and certain theories of justice makes me think he's pulling a Chris Mooney by implying that only conservatives, and not liberals, engage in motivated reasoning.

He also ignores that political conservatives in the rest of the developed world don't necessarily have a lot in common with US conservatives. (This, too, is a mistake Mooney also makes.) I do agree that religious overtones often influence discussions of free will, and theories of justice. But, again, religiosity, or lack thereof, is precisely where conservatives in the rest of the developed world most differ from their American compadres.

So, outside of America? False move, Prof. Caruso.

Back to the arguments against linking free will and theories of justice.

Walter Kaufmann’s book “Without Guilt and Justice” critiques Rawlsian theories of justice and ethics in general, and Rawls himself in particular. It rejects both “retributive” AND “distributive” justice alike, on other grounds. People are individuals, and we cannot treat them like data points in population genetics, therefore there is no way of being “fair.”

Thus, I can — and do — reject ideas of retributive justice in general based on anything that smacks of Rawls’ version of ….

Let’s call it liberal moral redistribution, with a deliberate riff on socialism, even communism, in that “redistribution.” And, that's quite deliberate, and yet another reason I call myself a skeptical left-liberal.

So, with Caruso, I reject (for now) retributive justice, but with a reason that is 180 degrees opposite of the reason that Caruso wants to reject retributive justice.

And, I do so without throwing out babies with the bathwater.

Then, we have what I’m going to call “folk philosophy,” paralleling “folk psychology,” on the issue of free will. And, frankly, I think some professional philosophers engage in it, too.

Caruso, while referencing Libet, doesn’t really appear to wrestle with the idea that neuroscience is still in the Early Bronze Age, if that. We’re going to need science to tell us more about consciousness in general, and volition in particular — without going down the road of scientism — before we can talk about free will in general with any great degree of clarity.

In addition to wrongly linking a cart and horse that doesn’t necessarily go together, Caruso is putting an ill-defined cart ahead of that horse.

And, again, it’s unnecessary. To riff on Gilbert Ryle's "category mistake," I am inventing the term "conjunctive mistake."

As I mentioned in my first comment to him on his first essay, I covered a lot of this — the uncertainties of talking about free will in all its glory — in the essay I did at Scientia Salon about saying “mu” to the idea of “free will vs. determinism.”

In that issue, like Caruso in his two essays and in other writings, wrestled not only with Libet, but also Daniel Wegner and others. Do we have a conscious free will in the classical sense? I think Wegner has, at a minimum, raised some good questions.
Update: Wegner's "The Illusion of Conscious Will" is reviewed by me here.

That said, if he's right, or to the degree that he's right, that doesn't leave some sort of determinism as a  default. And, that, in turn, gets me back to Caruso's thinking.

I think Caruso’s still stuck to a degree (but not necessarily a huge degree) of viewing this issue in terms of polarities.

Finally, as I also noted, consciousness is not a “hard” problem in the sense of David Chalmers. But it is, and will continue to be, a difficult problem, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

As for that "conjunctive mistake"? Theories of ethics are complicated enough, even if we stay on the side of moral realism, without committing philosophical entanglement of mixing them with free will.

That said, to parse out Caruso.

You want to talk about more humanistic justice? Let's set aside free will. Here's my thoughts.

Can we adopt a less all-encompassing pragmatic utilitarianism toward justice? Yes. And we should.

If, without dehumanizing people, retributive justice has at least some value for the person upon whom it’s administered, as well as larger society, to the best our limited, non-Rawlsian point of view can tell, then retributive justice is what we need. (Note that this largely does not describe the current American retributive criminal justice system.)

If retributive justice doesn’t have such value, then we need to do something else.

Simple pragmatism. No particular stance on free will involved.

Does this treat people as “automatons”? I think not. It treats them as persons with some degree of freedom. On a free-will oriented stance, it can also lead to them being more conscious about “drivers” of their behavior. On a less free-will stance, it can simply work on those unconscious drivers, while offering the possibility of more, including possible enlightenment of their consciousness.

And that's not all. Caruso could have — and should have — brought in Daniel Kahnemann's "fast" vs. "slow" thinking into the issue. Even without tying it directly to free will, it would directly tie to issues of degrees of consciousness. But, it didn't.

Back to the logical disjunction. It's possible that some varieties of free will might be MUCH more averse to retributive justice than might a quasi-determinism. Any sort of theory of free will that sees free will as something evolving would likely favor a theory of justice that aided that evolution, even with cases like criminal behavior. Per my "dehumanizing" notes above, that's that type of free will.

And, as for Caruso's case for free will being an illusion, in essence for committing to some broad variety of determinism, beyond my issue-by-issue, action-by-action partial psychological determinism? Per a good review of his book on the subject, I think I'm far from alone in finding him wanting, even if it's for other grounds, and beyond those, of the review.

So, Caruso can claim until the cows come home that retributive justice, and a desire for it, are based on free-will stances on volition. He'll still be wrong.

And, yes, he writes a lot about free will. So, I'm not sure if he thinks attacking retributive justice — his claims aside — is a winning "move" because it will appeal more to liberals, whom secularists are more likely to be, or what.  But, it seems he also has legitimate concerns about retributive justice.

Fine. Write a separate essay about that. And, I would likely love to discuss it with you.

As for engaging with, or not, the idea that belief in free will could be harmful to society?

First, the shorter answer, as I Tweeted Caruso: How would one even begin to try to scientifically prove such a claim? Surveys would offer correlation evidence, of course, and might point to causation. But that's not guaranteed.

Second, you cite what you do note as "a few studies," while noting that they're limited in what they indicated, but not noting whether they wrestle with either of the two issues noted above:
1. Distinguishing US conservatives from those elsewhere and
2. Looking at how belief in free will may affect liberals' thoughts.

Third, a belief in the existence of free will is about as much like the actual existence of free will as belief in Santa or Jesus is the same as actual existence of Jesus or Santa. If Caruso can't differentiate between the two, or ...

If THAT is his premise for claiming a logical connection between free will and theories of justice, that it's actually some connection between a BELIEF in free will and theories of justice, then I don't want to go further down a rabbit hole about making assumptions to clarify his thinking, assumptions which he might reject even though they seem true.

That said, per that principle of charity, I think that's what Caruso is trying to argue. He may have a point.

Let's assume that we can do research, and ignoring liberal/conservative issues to start, we just confirm that, for society in general, in the US and elsewhere, that a belief in free will leads to a belief in the efficacy of retributive justice.

Let us say that criminology studies show retributive justice in general is not efficacious, and generally becomes less efficacious the more harsh it is.

We can then discuss this in terms of ethics, and relatedly, in terms of political philosophy.

Perhaps Caruso will actually wend his way to that in final comments, or maybe will be given an opportunity by Massimo Pigliucci to write a third essay that comports with my charitable interpretation of his first and second ones.

As for the rest of what's actually in his two essays?

I would say, or write an essay on issues in volition, but ...

On my "mu," not just with Caruso but in general, I'm at the point where I think we should just stop talking about free will for, oh, about another century or so.


Cognitive neuroscience in particular, and science of mind in general, isn't going to move from the Early Bronze Age into the Iron Age for at least that long, and it's ridiculous, ultimately, to talk about issues of volition, and theories of them, before then.

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