Wednesday 1 September 2004

Personhood and Freewill (2004)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXII No. 2 Autumn  2004

Ockham’s Razor and a Revival of the Introspective Argument

By Sharon Kaye

There is a disturbing movement afoot in contemporary philosophy. It is common for philosophers to argue that free will is a natural illusion, by which they mean that belief in free will is a product of evolution. Human beings, they seem to say, believe they have free will, not because this belief is true, but only because it is a useful survival strategy.

Let us call this view 'evolutionary determinism', and let its proponents grant that the sensation of free will is central to human consciousness. In our every waking moment we regard ourselves as agents with choices about what to think and what to do. For any given plan of action, we believe we could do otherwise. Without this conviction we could not function in a fully human way. Even the determinists themselves, who allegedly know they do not have free will, cannot stop believing they do. According to them, the belief is just as inescapable as it is mistaken.

But evolutionary determinism is disturbing because it undermines the possibility of self-knowledge and therefore personhood. How can we claim to be aware of ourselves as selves when we are so fundamentally deceived about what we are? People on the street claim to know of the existence of free will by examining their own experiences from the inside, what philosophers call 'introspection'. Despite its commonsense appeal and despite its role in shaping the tradition of metaphysical libertarianism, the introspective argument for free will has all but disappeared from the current debate and is widely regarded as a dead horse.

I endeavour here to restore confidence in self-knowledge, and hence in personhood, by reviving the introspective argument. In so doing, I turn back to one of its earliest and most committed defenders, William of Ockham. The determinist relies on Ockham's razor to justify the elimination of free will, but I will argue that this constitutes an abuse of the 'razor' and that the determinists have misrepresented the introspective argument as an argument from feeling.

Ockham's razor, the principle according to which the simpler theory is more likely to be true, is the lynchpin for the determinist's argument against free will. Since the long string of biological and environmental causes presupposed in the theory of natural selection is sufficient to explain everything human beings do, there is no need to posit free will.

Understanding Ockham's libertarianism requires a closer look at his razor. He himself, after all, was a thoroughgoing libertarian, despite the popularity of various versions of determinism in his day. The principle of simplicity was just as controversial in the Middle Ages as it is now. The crux of the dispute, in my view, depends on one's epistemological orientation. Rationalists often find the principle objectionable because they hold that true knowledge is certain. Certainty is an ambitious standard that is liable to require a complex theoretical support. Empiricists, in contrast, typically embrace some version of the razor.

Satisfied with probability in lieu of certainty, they begin with a large quantity of raw data about reality - as complex as you like. They use the razor, not to simplify the data, but to find the simplest possible explanation of the data. Everything observed must be explained through hypotheses and there should be no more hypotheses than absolutely necessary for a complete explanation. The rationale is that each individual hypothesis is a liability: no matter how benign it may seem, it carries the possibility of falsehood. The less possibility for falsehood in a theory, the more likely it is to be true.

Ockham was also an uncompromising empiricist. This is nowhere more evident than in his argument for libertarianism. He writes:
The thesis in question cannot be proven by any argument, since every argument meant to prove it will assume something that is just as unknown as or more unknown than the conclusion. Nonetheless, the thesis can be known evidently through experience, since a human being experiences that, no matter how much reason dictates a given thing, the will is still able to will that thing, or not to will it, or to will against it.

Opera Theologica IX [Joseph C. Wey C. S. B. (ed.), St. Bonaventure N.Y.: Franciscan Institute, p. 88]
Ockham regards the existence of free will in the same way most of today's empiricists regard the existence of the external world: it is the unproven and unprovable given upon which his entire philosophy is constructed. And Ockham fails to see any conflict between libertarianism and simplicity. In his view, the prospect of razoring free will never even arises because it is something we directly experience within ourselves. The razor does not permit us to simplify the raw data of reality; rather, it requires us to adopt the simplest explanation of everything we observe. In Ockham's estimation, libertarianism meets this requirement perfectly. His argument is a medieval empiricist version of what is today known as the introspective argument for libertarianism.

In the twentieth century, however, determinists represented the introspective argument as an argument from feeling. According to them, when human beings claim to have free will what they mean is that they feel as though they are able to do other than they do. But to construe free will as a feeling is to commit something of a straw man attack on libertarianism.

There is no reason to suppose subjective psychological states tell us anything about the structure of reality. My 'feeling watched' does not warrant me to posit a stalker. My 'feeling persecuted' does not prove that someone is persecuting me. My 'feeling lucky' does not make me any more likely to win. These feelings are subjective psychological states.

My feeling pain, in contrast, does make me likely to have some sort of injury. This is because, properly speaking, we do not feel pain, we experience pain. The fact that pain can be observed only introspectively does not make it a subjective psychological state. Likewise for free will.

Significantly, Ockham never appeals to feeling in his defence of libertarianism; he builds his introspective argument upon a feature of reality that is objective despite the fact that it lies within the human person. At this point, one might worry that the feature in question will turn out to be a spiritual entity. After all, dualists cast the will as an immaterial component of the immaterial soul, something unobservable by definition. There is no call, however, to saddle Ockham with such an unempirical position. The objective foundation of libertarianism is ability.

An ancient Talmudic saying asserts that one could never know that one has an ability to do otherwise because no one has ever done it. It is quite right to suppose that it is impossible both not to do something and to do it. Nevertheless, experiencing an ability to do otherwise does not require actually doing otherwise any more than experiencing an ability to do anything requires actually doing it.

I submit the following example in support of this thesis. Suppose I am a runner. I run ten kilometres almost every day. I ran ten yesterday and the day before that. I am keenly aware that I have the ability to run ten today. I am aware of this ability even despite the fact that, on this particular occasion, I do not feel like doing it. Let us call my running ability my 'zill.' Do I need to exercise my zill today in order to know that my zill still exists? Of course not. Therefore, human beings can be directly aware of their abilities.

This example hypostatises the entity of the zill in order to show that the will is a parallel hypostasis. There is nothing especially mysterious about it. We get by in ordinary speech without ever referring to the zill while firmly believing in the existence of running ability. We could get by equally well without reference to the will while affirming the ability to do otherwise.

It might be objected that there is no direct awareness involved in my running example at all. Instead, I have made an inductive inference. A compelling response to this objection emerges, however, in the familiar phenomenon of amnesia. Amnesia is loss of memory due to brain injury, shock, fatigue, repression, or illness. Studies show that many amnesiacs who cannot remember who they are or what they have done in the past, still know what they are able to do. If I suffered a blow to the head this morning rendering me unable to remember that I am a runner and that I have run ten kilometres many times, I may still know that I am able to run ten kilometres today.

It might still be objected further that human beings are notoriously inaccurate in estimating their own abilities. But regular error in this awareness is no more worrisome than regular error about what we perceive in the external world. Error is not a special problem for introspection. In fact, we should not expect introspection to be any more or less reliable than ordinary vision.

Socrates would argue that part of the purpose of philosophy is to exercise one's introspection so that, with practice over time, one might come to know oneself. Confidence in philosophy and in our ability to attain personhood through it requires the assumption that human beings can introspectively observe their own abilities. So, I have argued that we should take seriously the possibility that free will is not a natural illusion. We should take it seriously because our ability to claim a measure of self-knowledge necessary for personhood depends on it. If we are deceived about free will then we are deceived about our very nature as human beings. Although evolutionary determinists may insist that we are not deceived if we know that we are deceived, this is a logical contradiction. In order to know that one is deceived one must actually be deceived.

It could be said that since free will is an uncaused cause, being aware of it would be like being aware of the pink elephant that is not in the room. But philosophers are not entitled to dismiss an observation just because it does not make sense within a pet theory. If what I have argued here is correct, then the evolutionary determinist's case against free will abuses the principle of simplicity because it attempts to simplify the world rather than simplifying our explanation of the world. The razor is an empiricist principle that must take account of all objective features of reality--including that which is observed introspectively. Human beings introspectively observe free will, not as a feeling, but as an ability.

Address for correspondence: 

Dr. Sharon M. Kaye
Department of Philosophy
John Carroll University
20700 North Park Boulevard
Cleveland, Ohio, 44118 USA 

1 comment:

  1. Ockham is a very curious thinker, so influential in his time - and so often overlooked now.


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