Last week I argued that agents making free choices do not in fact have to violate any physical law, in view of quantum indeterminism. Rather than being a ‘slave’ to the quantum statistics, as some philosophers have argued (e.g. Ted Sider, 2005), a choosing agent can be governed by quantum propensities while still having enough ‘wiggle room’ to make free choices—choices that are fundamentally caused by the agent’s volitional powers.
To review, the Born Rule for probabilities of quantum outcomes can only be violated if it is applied to a well-defined quantum state in which many precisely repeated trials yield a distribution of outcomes that deviate significantly and reliably from the rule (where the frequencies of the outcomes represent the probabilities). The ‘wiggle room’ is available to the human being because, as a complex biological system, he or she is not described by a well-defined quantum state subject to a well-defined measurement observable over a time interval long enough to generate a valid statistical application of the rule. The Born Rule may still govern the agent’s choices at each instant, but no deviation from the rule can be established if the agent’s physical state (at the quantum level) is continually changing in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way. Thus, there is no necessary violation of the quantum statistics on the part of a freely choosing macroscopic biological system like a human being.
This week, I examine a view known as ‘Disillusionism’. This approach says that free will is an illusion, yet people can have meaningful and fulfilling lives without free will. Such an approach has recently been advocated by philosopher Greg Caruso (2013). Disillusionism is based either on a deterministic interpretation of quantum theory (such as the Bohmian interpretation), or on taking the quantum statistics as constraining our choices and actions so tightly that in effect those choices are pre-determined. As I have argued, I think the latter is based on a misunderstanding of the quantum statistics and the circumstances required for their application. So let us suppose that philosophers advocating Disillusionism are doing so because they think that (despite quantum theory) all actions are truly predetermined, and/or that we live in a ‘block world’ where all past, present and future events ‘already’ exist.
If all actions are predetermined, physically we are akin to dominoes that are being figuratively ‘fallen on’ by other dominoes. Each time that happens, whether or not we also will fall depends not on anyone’s choice, but simply on the physical conditions of each fall. For example (figuratively speaking), sometimes one domino will fall on another, but the neighboring domino will not be knocked over, simply because the first domino was not quite close enough to the second one to overcome its inertia.
In this picture, all our choices and actions are determined by circumstances and forces over which we have no control at all. Whenever we do anything, it is because we are compelled to do so. If one doesn’t like the term ‘compelled,’ perhaps another word is ‘propelled.’ Whatever words we use to describe the situation, we are effectively automatons in which each input results in a single fully predictable and unavoidable output. This means that whenever we perceive ourselves as ‘trying’ to do something, it is in fact already decided whether our ‘attempted’ action will occur, and what its outcome will be. Therefore, in this disillusionist approach, isn’t our subjective sense of ‘trying’ to do things also an illusion that would need to be rejected?
Suppose dominoes were sentient. While they might be able to perceive themselves as being involved in various processes and as exerting effort, in fact they are not self-propelled. Instead, they are propelled by forces beyond their control, since all their actions are fully dictated by those forces. So, in what sense is any of those dominoes really ‘trying’ to do anything? Every action that occurs is fully explained by physical processes and forces, so no ‘trying’ on the part of any of the dominoes is really part of the explanation for anything that occurs. If a domino perceives itself as exerting an effort, that perception must be just a byproduct of the actions in which he is fully determined by forces beyond his control to engage, and therefore just another aspect of the free will illusion. Without free will, ‘trying’ is superfluous, and any conscious entity is simply a sentient automaton.
The point of the above is that we can’t have it both ways: either (1) we have free will, in which case we can exert creative efforts through our own volitional capacity toward specific aims that we are trying to achieve, or (2) under disillusionism, we are simply automatons that don’t actually try to do anything. We just fall, as dominoes, where we are propelled to fall, and our subjective perceptions that we are exerting creative efforts are just as illusory as our subjective sense that we have free will. Thus, it is doubtful that disillusionism about free will can be consistent with a meaningful, creative life. Without free will, each person is an automated cog in a machine—even if perhaps a sentient one.
However, ‘disillusionism’ is certainly not demanded by physical law, as I pointed out in Part I. We can indeed be self-propelled, and although we certainly are subject to some forces beyond our control, we need not see ourselves as primarily propelled by them. The effort we must exert to accomplish our chosen tasks could be just as real as our ability to make those choices.
Caruso, Gregg (2013). Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will. Lexington Books.
Sider, T. (2005). “Free Will and Determinism,” in Riddles of Existence, by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 112-133.