Saturday, 9 June 2012

Free will and creativity

So I was at a philosophy conference last weekend where a handful of undergraduates presented papers on various topics. One paper made replies to some recent criticisms of Frankfurt-cases as counterexamples to the notion that, for a person to be morally responsible for an action, it must have been possible for him to do otherwise. To this day generally accepted, the claim is known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. Frankfurt's argument is essentially that, even if sufficient conditions are met to ensure that a person acts in a certain way, they do not necessarily explain why the person acted in that way. Only the true explanation, which is to be found in the person's will, can tell us whether he acted freely. Frankfurt's main thought experiment runs thus: 

Jones has decided to kill Smith. Black also wants Smith to be killed, so he monitors Jones' mental state and will know if Jones is going to change his mind. If he does change his mind, Black has the power to make him kill Smith anyway. But Black doesn't want to get involved if he doesn't have to, so if Jones does go through with it, Black won't intervene. In this case, it seems intuitively true that Jones would be morally responsible for his decision to kill Smith, even though he couldn't have done otherwise.

The counterexample suggests that the real reason someone might be said to be morally responsible for an action is its explanation in terms of their will – their own inner reason for having so acted. Jones didn't kill Smith because Black determined him to – he did so because of his own decision. (There is the obvious objection that, if causal determinism is true, Jones's very thought process couldn't have gone any other way, so he could hardly be blamed for that either. I'll return to this shortly.)

Now, a recent criticism of Frankfurt-cases as counterexamples to the Principle disputes Frankfurt's concept of action. For something to count as a genuine action by an agent, the agent must have the ability to refrain from doing so at the time of the action. An 'action' is thus defined as an intervention into the course of nature that the agent need not have bought about. By this standard, Jones didn't even perform an action, let alone bare moral responsibility for it. But, as Moran points out, formalising this argument reveals that it's just a brute assertion of incompatibilism: No actual case is made for the claim that free will only occurs if the agent has the possibility to refrain from their chosen course of action. It has failed to show that there is any connection between an event depending on the agent's will and the agent's ability to refrain. So this mere definition of agency isn't a very successful criticism in itself.

Moran is critical of this and also of a second argument which says that, in the Frankfurt case, Jones does not have the right sort of control over his actions. Different sorts of control have been identified for the purposes of this debate, and Moran argues that a kind of hypothetical or 'conditional' control should suffice for agency. For example, Sally is driving a car and turns left. She was 'metaphysically determined' to do this, and in that sense she couldn't have done otherwise. However, it is still the case that if a certain set of events occurred, Sally would not have turned left. The ability to respond appropriately to events is part of her 'intrinsic properties': In principle she can refrain from turning left, and this seems to be the relevant sense in which she 'can' do that, even if she is destined to respond to events appropriately and is not 'able' to respond in any other way.

But even inanimate objects have this sort of conditional 'power' to some extent. If it rains, the grass can grow, but in the event it hasn't rained so the grass doesn't grow. So clearly the idea of free will conditional powers needs to be further explained. The most Moran says about this is that humans are "highly responsive to their environment," and that

we are the kind of creatures who are psycho-physiologically sophisticated in such a way that if any of a range of possible events occur, we are capable of the appropriate responses.

But a computer could be programmed to 'respond appropriately' to a range of possible events – so this isn't enough for free will. It also seems wrong to imply that inanimate objects, in their sheer obedience to the laws of physics, have a certain (if tiny) amount of the quality that supposedly makes human freedom. But free will isn't a matter of degree. This was brought up in the question period as someone asked where to draw the line between animals, etc., that aren't responsive enough to have free will and those which are. The reply was that more work needed to be done before a clear distinction could be made. 

In the second section of the paper it is argued that the future may be 'subjectively open' even if it's objectively determined. When we talk of a person considering 'options', we might only mean that those options are 'epistemically' rather than objectively possible. This looks like a restatement of Frankfurt's argument. But if something is only 'subjectively' the case it might just as well be an illusion, so this doesn't suffice either. It was brought up in the question period that our deliberations about the subjectively open future are themselves determined, so these Frankfurt-type arguments beg the question against incompatibilism. In any case, none of the arguments so far have shown that humans have intrinsic properties that result in free will.

Perhaps it has something to do with creativity. When we talk of people deliberating over various options, we refer more than anything else to the creative act of conjecturing and criticising various options and thereby also conceiving new options that didn't previously exist. Creative processes are inherently unpredictable, which is problematic for the requirements of hard determinism. Also, if I haven't misinterpreted it, the view of free will as creativity is embodied in Karl Popper's 'two-stage model' – mirroring his epistemology of conjecture and refutation. In a later post I'll look at this model and criticisms of it.

NB: I have referred to the sources below but if anyone wants citation for a particular sentence I'd be happy to give it.

Paper from the conference -- 'Agency, Frankfurt-Cases and the Compatibility of Determinism with Free Will and Moral Responsibility' in the BJUP
Alvarez, 'Actions, thought-experiments and the ‘Principle of alternate Possibilities’'
Frankfurt, 'Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility'
Summary of Popper's two-stage model