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A compatiblist explanation for why this paper must have necessarily been written.
Bryan Kennedy Philosophy of Mind Prof. John Searle 8/12/03
I am sitting here, writing this paper. I sigh as I look away from this sentence, take a sip of green tea, and contemplate how to best begin a paper on compatibilism. But do I even want to write it? After all, I’m doing well in this class, and I could really use some extra study time for the final. But I’m also shooting for a good grade, and neglecting the paper would diminish my chances of accomplishing this goal. A compatibilist would argue that all my prior beliefs, desires, and experiences combine in such a way as to lead me to necessarily and inevitably write the paper. Essentially, the very fact that I will write this paper is determined by all these conflicting causes swirling around in my mind. But I, valiant philosopher and defender of freedom, will throw caution to the wind, and take a bold stand against compatibilism. Therefore, I will refrain from writing this paper, thus proving that I can overcome the reasons that originally compelled me to write it.
Darn. That didn’t work. Just as I was leaving my keyboard, I realized that even if I had succeeded in my courageous stand against compatibilist theory, I would have proven nothing. Any moderately-persuaded compabililist would point out that my desire to disprove compatibilism simply overcame my various desires to write about it. In this paper I will explain what the compatibilist theory proposes and demonstrate why the act of writing this paper was necessarily determined by my causal conditions. Most famously championed by the philosophers Hume and Hobbes, compatibilism attempts to solve one of philosophy’s greatest duels: determinism vs. libertarianism (or free will). It does this using a most unlikely approach – by suggesting they are completely compatible with each other (Searle, 1984). Huh? At first glace, the task seems insurmountable. On one hand, we have determinism, which states that everything is determined by causal laws. On the other, we have libertarianism’s notion of free will, which is described as the thought process by which one can choose to perform a specific act, in the midst of a variety of possible actions. Given this description, it would seem that free will can not exist under any deterministic theory, since causal powers would “force” one to follow a particular path. After all, how could a world that contained such indeterminism, be, as it were, determined? Compatiblists, however, postulate another view of free will that deserves our attention. Perhaps, they suggest, what is meant by freedom simply involves being able to freely deliberate and choose among various options without being forced into one particular mode of action. In that sense, the act of writing this paper demonstrates free will because it was not made mandatory, either by external factors, such as someone forcing me at gunpoint to write it, nor by internal factors, such as my Obsessive Essayist Disorder (OED) compelling me to write it without reason. Assuming this is an accurate description of free will, it seems to me possible to conclude that a decision that was not forced could still be deterministic while maintaining at least some degree of free will. Let me digress for a moment to explain further by what is meant by deterministic thought processes. In nature, physics states that (at least on the atomic level) all actions are preceded by causes. Psychological determinism takes this a step further by stating that for every action we take, there is a corresponding set of internal and external causes that determine how we act in a given situation. Like a “causal cloud” that follows us wherever we go, these conditions are made up of our memories, beliefs, desires, and experiences. According to the theory, given an identical
set of conditions, a rational, free-acting human being would make exactly the same choice every time. This assertion goes against the common perceptual experience of free will. I write this paper with the feeling that I could have at any time chosen to do something else. But compatibilism states that while I personally have the ability to affect my environment, my very volition is predetermined by my internal brain states. In defense of free will, professor John Searle assures me that I “could” have done something else other than write this essay (Searle, 2001). But I believe this sentence is employing the wrong linguistic term. Instead, the question we should be asking is this: “Would” I have done something else given my current causal cloud? If I “could” do something else, I necessarily “would” do that something in some cases, but “would” is a more stringent qualifier. It is reasonable to assume that I “could” have marked the appropriate box and voted for Bush, but “would” I have? Definitely not. Given identical conditions, I “could” have chosen a different action, but I never “would” have, unless of course my cloud changed to include the fact that I wanted to prove my own free will! Think about it – try to reflect on a situation in which you performed an action that you knew was not in your best interest – yet you had no reasons to make this alternate decision. That is, you made a different choice arbitrarily. I for one can not think of any such instance in my life, nor believe it would ever happen. Choosing among the various topics available to me in writing this essay involved judging which topic I thought would be best, which in turn involved evaluations of interest and intellectual challenge. I would not have chosen this essay topic from the list, only to find myself writing on another, for no reason whatsoever! Let’s expand on this a moment, for I feel it is important. Yes, our decisions rely on an array of competing conditions in our causal cloud. And yes, it seems to me that I move through these choices by making the best decisions possible. Before my mother objects, I must hasten to add that this judgment of “best” is defined on an individual basis, and is inherently based on the information available (or at least considered) at the time of one’s choice. Changing one’s mind (which I myself do quite often), involves nothing more than either obtaining new information, or modifying the importance of some key components within one’s causal cloud. I don’t give up in my search for a parking place for no reason whatsoever, but because I grow increasingly pessimistic that I will find a close space. We factor in all the available information on a subject before arriving at what we believe to be the optimal course of action. Even so-called “bad”
decisions are made though this process, but include such “information” as the desire to rebel, inaccurate facts, or otherwise. Sure, I could sit in my chair now and do nothing, the ultimate statement of free will, but would I? Or more importantly, if I did, what beliefs and desires led me to act that way? I think in many people’s minds, the absence free will is associated with bondage – but compatibilism strongly denies this association. Instead, it suggests that we can and do experience free will, in the form of being able to make decisions and see them put into action. What’s the big deal if those decisions were “positively efficient”, such that the same decision would be made in exactly the same manner if it were repeated? I alone posses my vast array of internal and external conditions – these are my own, and serve to guide me in my daily life. Indeed, it is possible to imagine a different Bryan, which came to believe that this second essay was worth only 5% of his grade – and because of this change to his causal cloud, decided not to write it. Neither of us was forced to write this paper, though we picked different paths because of our individuality. Fine. I’m writing this paper because my causal cloud led me to do so. But doesn’t this lead to the dreaded epiphenomenalist viewpoint that I myself cannot affect my behavior? That I am, as they say, just “froth on the wave of my neural firings” (Searle, 2001)? I do not feel it does. For this causal cloud is my own, created out of a lifetime of experiences. To say that my unique bundle of experiences affects the world, confirms that I do in fact have an effect on the world. I believe this is exactly the reason why many people like Searle shy away from compatibilism - this apparent, and supposedly devastating loss of free will. Searle snickers at the thought that raising his hand could have somehow been determined long ago by the big bang (Searle, 2001). But why does he find this thought so improbable, while he at the same time accepts the teachings of evolution? After all, how on earth could he be genetically related to an ape? A toad? The first prokaryote? Or worse yet, his dualist adversary Sir John Eccles? Sometimes it is difficult to see our relationship in the scheme of things, and of course no “book” was written that foretold the passage of time down to the point on July 24th when Searle raised his hand. Instead, everything, including his upbringing, desires, and beliefs, united together at that crucial moment to necessarily lead him to elevate of his evolutionarily-engineered hand. Unconvinced, Searle often brings up the very idea of evolution, by questioning why we would have developed such an evolutionarily expensive apparatus of conscious thought if it made no difference in how we behaved (Searle, 1984). But it does! The contention that we do not
have free will in the traditional sense, does not suggest that the “thing upstairs” is sitting there dormant – the process of making the right decision is a demanding task, which flexes both our skills in decision making as well as memory. In addition to accurately recalling experiences from my long term memory, I must also use my working memory as a sketchpad for my causal cloud (Matlin, 2003). I can easily envision the futuristic “Decision Maker 2000”, a machine with a much more advanced decision-making ability than my own. Not only would it benefit from increased processing speed, but also from expanded working memory, thus enabling it to consider all the relevant information to the current decision at hand. This is obviously a great leap over my overworked mind, which often requires external working memory in the form of a list! Conversely, it is possible to imagine a less evolved animal that, while capable of making simple decisions, finds it cannot quickly decide whether it should keep the ball to itself or return it to its master. Indeed, our decision making apparatus is quite advanced, which has allowed us an evolutionary advantage over other species that came before. It is here that we arrive at an impasse. On one hand, I feel entirely convinced that my actions are determined completely and totally by my causal cloud. At the same time, however, I am inclined to suspect this claim, for it seems that in some hypothetical cases, I would not experience any causally sufficient conditions for my actions. Not in the matter of voting for Bush or writing this essay, both of which I believe would be based on causally sufficient information, but in the matter of choosing between two or more identical options of which there is obviously no “best”. Let’s look at a simple example. You are on top of a hill, and have two wooden cylinders before you, with the instruction to push only one down the hill. The problem is that both are identical in all respects. There is nothing about either cylinder that would cause you to pick it over the other. It would be foolish to suggest that you can’t choose between them – in fact, the act of choosing would be a quick and simple matter - you just pick one. Traditional compatibilist theory would argue that you would always choose the same one – but I am not so convinced. Given this absence of causally sufficient data, it seems that there would be no way to explain my choosing one over the other, without introducing some form of free will into the equation. Then again, if this is indeed free will, are we saying that a coin toss exhibits free will? Or even more depressing, that free will is just randomness? Usually at this point, most philosophers find themselves discussing the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics and theorizing how it might one day explain free will (Searle, 2001). But
can human beings really make random decisions? Studies show that in fact, we are not very good at being random. One study, for instance, used a similar set up as the one used above, and found that when asked to choose from a variety of identical stockings, a majority of subjects chose the right-most stocking. It was hypothesized that these subjects ended up choosing the last stocking they saw, since English-speakers are conditioned by reading to look from left to right (Matlin, 2003). In other words, the “quality” of the rightmost stocking was the most salient feature of their respective causal clouds at the time of their decision, leading them to pick it over the others. Another illustration of our inability to act randomly is in the surprisingly tedious task of generating random numbers. When you or I set to the chore of generating a random string of numbers, we usually tend to pick central numbers (5, 6, and 7), and avoid repeats or patterns. But in an actual random number table, repeated digits are very common (Matlin, 2003). Indeed, as I sit here and contemplate this fact, I find that the numbers that “arrive” first in my mind are those that either 1) I favor, or 2) are most relevant to me at the moment (I found that the number 2 came to mind first, because I just used it in this sentence). It seems to me that if given two identical cylinders of wood, I would necessarily choose one based on some form of arbitrary decision-making process that incorporated facts from my causal cloud. Since we always act by choosing our best possible course of action, and because experiments bring into question our ability to behave in a truly random fashion, it seems to me that compatibilism is correct in asserting that free will is determined. So what led me to write this paper, in the end? Did I feel I was compelled to write it outside my better judgment? No. It seems to me that I wrote this paper because my causal cloud made me do it. If I ever find myself in the position of not having done my homework, I’ll be sure to remember this explanation when discussing the situation with my professor.
Work Cited Matlin, Margaret W. Cognition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003. Searle, John R. Minds, Brains and Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. 7
Searle, John R. “Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology” (8 April 2001). Retrieved: 9 August 2003. Online: http://www.theunityofknowledge.org/the_free_will_fiction/searle.htm