SIO11: Do We Have Free Will? with Aaron

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Today I have philosopher Aaron on to discuss free will. I’ve been wanting to revisit the topic for quite a while now, ever since the debate between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett that I covered in detail at the time. Today’s show is exploring an anti-compatibilist position, and I’m hoping a future show will explore the compatibilist one! (if you’re a philosopher who believes free will exists, please contact us using the links below to potentially be on a future episode!) Aaron attempts to define free will in the way most amenable to compatibilist arguments, yet still believes he has good reason to doubt free will! Listen and see if you agree! If you like Aaron, make sure to check out his book here!

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11 Replies to “SIO11: Do We Have Free Will? with Aaron”

  1. The thought that without free will there can be no self is very interesting. I, too, had not heard it put that way. I lot of “Eastern” mystic traditions go on about how there is no individual self, all selves are one, there is only the supreme self, etc., which is right next to there being no self. Hmmmmm . . .

  2. Great episode! This is the kind of thing I subscribe to your podcast for.

    I’ve been 50/50 on the free will issue for a couple years now., and after this podcast I’m now firmly compatibilist. I’m in complete agreement with Aaron on just about every point of fact, but I differ when it comes to definitions. The definition of free will I think is easy- it’s the ability of the self to determine its actions. The tricky definition is what “self” means. Aaron seemed to be working with an almost religious definition of self that must be causally disconnected from reality. This definition isn’t even coherent as far as I can tell, but that’s a problem with the definition, not the term. I find it absurd to dismiss the idea of a “self” when we all experience a self personally. I would define my self as the collection of values, preferences, and memories that make me who I am.

    For example- Thomas was put in the situation where he had a choice between quitting his job or not. As it turned out, he placed a higher value on becoming a full-time podcaster than staying at his day job. He didn’t choose that value, but I would argue that doesn’t matter. That value is contained within his self, so his self was acting freely.

    I like this definition of self and free will because I think it re-grounds moral responsibility in a useful way. To hold someone morally responsible in this context is to say “You acted in a way that demonstrates that your core values are flawed and may need to be corrected with external pressure.”

  3. Tony Parsons talks about there being no self and no free will. Probably too woo for this crowd, but Aaron’s comment triggered a memory of Parsons (without warning I’m afraid). “The Wonder of Being, Munich 2008” DVD is his least wooiest conversation, though he is all over YouTube, for both nickels that it’s worth.

  4. On moral luck — Are we conflating the thing we base laws on with morality? It seems like regardless of whether our moral theorizing includes consequentialism, the law takes into account consequences, and potential consequences (e.g., it’s not legal to run a red light even if no one gets injured). As I understand the law, it does not adjudicate morally responsibility, but rather legal culpability. That’s not to say it can’t take into account complicated moral values (e.g., punishing a texting teen but not a woman in labor for running a red-light), but as far as I know, nobody has ever argued their way out of a traffic ticket with a spirited debate on metaethics (although, if Andrew Torrez could prove me wrong, I’d love to hear that story).

    Beyond the legal argument though, my personal history of scrupulosity has made me wary of assuming validity to arguments based on argued moral weight. Your guest seems to be arguing that if there were such a thing as free will, it would align with our conception of moral responsibility, and the fact that it does not, suggests that there is no basis for free will. Is it not possible that moral responsibility is hard to consolidate with free will not because free will doesn’t exist, but because morality is an imperfect conceptualization that may be, in and of itself, contradictory?

    More succinctly, couldn’t there be an amoral free will?

    Also, there seemed to be an “all or nothing” aspect to many of your guest’s objections and examples. I hope I’m paraphrasing fairly, but it seemed as if he was saying “if we can’t establish complete control over the consequences of our actions, we can’t establish any moral responsibility” and “if we can’t be in complete control of our decisions, we can’t be said to have made any decisions at all.”

    Using his example of your recent career shift, the notion that you can’t be said to have made a free choice, given that you couldn’t choose the conditions that led you to make the choice seems to depend on us strictly defining “free will” as complete freedom to choose (i.e., “I don’t have free will, because I am not God”). I don’t see how this argument addresses limited agency, wherein you are capable of influencing your reaction in some meaningful way to events outside your control.

    I recognize that your guest hasn’t really presented a formal argument, and I might just be making inferences based on the examples he’s presenting. That said, it seemed like most of this interview was your guest explaining why he believes others engage in motivated reasoning, and proposing potential benefits to reconsidering our assumptions about free will (many of which are interesting, though I don’t see why it’s necessary to reject free will to make these changes).

    Personally, I’m agnostic on this question. When I was in school, the consensus in our study group seemed to be that free will may or may not be a thing, but regardless of objective truth value, there’s no way for us to act as if free will doesn’t exist, so we have no choice but to continue acting as if we have control over our actions, accepting that we have no justification for believing that we do.

    And since it was mentioned in the episode, I think I have a similar response to the buddhists who assert that there is no self. By that, I mean I kind of agree. Personhood is an illusion created by neurons firing off electrochemical signals in a self-regulating mass of contradictory information, in which a significant amount of brain-cells do nothing but inhibit the firing of others, to form cobbled together short-hand descriptions from sensory data. The perceiving self is a time-limited fiction that lasts for 7-12 seconds, exhausts our brain’s capabilities to be aware of the present, and refreshes to create a new “self,” reaffirming the illusion of continuity of consciousness. More still, while the idea of a Freudian subconscious/unconscious is generally considered to be outdated and misrepresented by pop-culture, there are aspects of our brains that perceive and react autonomically to sense stimuli to which we are consciously unaware (e.g., initiating startle response to a stick we don’t notice that seems particularly snake-like). It’s not as if there is another “self” in your brain having deeper thoughts, but more like automatic processing which can affect our mood and thinking in indirect ways (e.g., releasing hormones and neurochemicals). Additionally, once we pull back from physiology, there are social and conceptual aspects of the self, wherein we are given context and meaning based on our relationships to ourselves, our surroundings, and other people. Self’s are permeable, conceptual, illusory things, and attempting to find an essentialized, valid, core-being while discounting those other amorphous aspects is, at best, naive.

    But again, having this awareness does nothing to change the fact that I accept that I am me, and somebody’s got to check my e-mails.

    Also, not to nitpick, but I have to disagree with the psychological speculation as to motivation and subjective perception of righteousness.

    I think “everyone thinks they’re the hero” is great screenwriting advice, but people are complicated. Saying everyone tries to do the right thing is like saying everyone is trying to eat healthy. Sure, there are people who regulate their cheeseburger intake in an attempt to maintain their healthy-eating habits the rest of the week, but people eat cheeseburgers and harm others because sometimes it’s easier, it’s more satisfying, they want to do something self-destructive, there are cultural norms that they haven’t questioned, they’re conflicted, etc.

    Additionally, just like “insanity” there’s no diagnostic criteria for sociopathy in the DSM 5, but from what I’ve read, the mistake we’re making when we ask if “psychopaths/sociopaths” view themselves as morally righteous is ascribing a moral dimension to their thinking. It’s tough to know what’s genuine knowledge, what’s outdated, and what’s just sensationalism, but the basic thinking, as I’ve seen it, is that these people view others as objects, or as a means to an end.

    The nearest diagnosable condition is Antisocial Personality Disorder, and the main criteria for that is “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others” followed by some specific behavioral criteria (e.g., lack of remorse). As always, diagnosing is guess-work based on observable behaviors and self-report, so there’s not much we can say about someone’s inner experience that isn’t inferential.

    A helpful thought that I’ve heard, is that narcissistic people don’t necessarily think of themselves as “good” (i.e., moral) but rather as “great” (i.e., important).

  5. I was typing my comment before I saw your’s. I don’t have the books nearby, but there’s a lot of psychological/sociological theorizing about the self as an illusion our brain creates. I can’t say I know where the empirical evidence ends and the inference and conceptualizing begins, but neuroscience tends to be referenced a lot.

  6. You’re right about “. . . ascribing a moral dimension to” the thinking of “psychopaths/sociopaths.” The concepts of good and bad, hero and villain, justification and condemnation simply don’t cross the minds of some people.

    A helpful thought that I’ve heard, is that narcissistic people don’t necessarily think of themselves as “good” (i.e., moral) but rather as “great” (i.e., important). That’s really scary, but probably very true.

  7. Couldn’t you argue that most peoples decisions are based on mind control. You are indoctrinated by your parents into a belief system, you are brainwashed into a way of thinking by schools and other important figures in your life. If all everything contributes to who you are and what decisions you make then you are being controlled from birth.

  8. Tor Nørretranders’ The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size is my personal favorite. It’s not certifiably academic (Nørretranders is a science writer), but it has a lot of interesting material.

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