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A British Philosopher Looks For a Way to Redefine Free Will

Julian Baggini’s proposed new approach assumes the existence of the very qualities that only a traditional view of the mind offers

British philosopher Julian Baggini, author of The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well (2021) argues against the idea of free will, as commonly understood (voluntarist free will).

Citing the fact that the world is controlled by physics, he writes,

No matter how free we feel, our understanding of nature tells us that no choice originates in us but traces its history throughout our histories and our environments. Even leaving aside physics, it seems obvious that, at the moment of any choice, the conditions for that choice have already been set, and to be able to escape them would be no more than the ability to generate random actions. And if all that is true, praise, blame and responsibility look like illusions too.

Julian Baggini, “How to think about free will” at Psyche (May 11, 2022)

However, he doesn’t quite think it is “time to accept that we are just biological machines, intelligent apes fooled by our perceptions into believing that we are above nature”. He proposes an alternative, citing the philosopher Harry Frankfurt:

Frankfurt says that we have the kind of free will worth having when our first- and second-order desires are aligned and we act on them. When we choose to do something that, all things considered, we don’t want to do, we have failed to exercise our free will and have behaved compulsively. If we haven’t even thought about whether we desire a desire, we are not exercising our free will if we unthinkingly act on it.

Second-order desires do not escape the chains of cause and effect. At bottom, they are the result of a series of events that we did not choose. But nothing we can do can be freely chosen ‘all the way down’. No one can choose the things that most fundamentally shape them: their genes, society and family. Not even God would be free to change its nature, if it existed.

Julian Baggini, “How to think about free will” at Psyche (May 11, 2022)

The trouble is, of course, that this proposal doesn’t make any sense. If the world were completely governed by cause and effect, the supposed distinction between first- and second-order desires would be meaningless. A human would no more have the ability to prefer second-order desires than a cat does. A human hesitates to indulge in needless cruelty; a cat kills mice for fun. Only a traditional view of the mind and free will can account for the human’s second-order desires.

It’s worth noting that Baggini bases part of his argument on a dismissal of quantum mechanics as irrelevant:

Quantum physics may tell us that some causes are probabilistic and so do not strictly determine their effects. But the randomness of quantum causation is no refuge for the notion of free will. Freedom is not the ability to act randomly, without any control about what effects follow.

Julian Baggini, “How to think about free will” at Psyche (May 11, 2022)

He misunderstands quantum mechanics. As Robert J. Marks points out, quantum randomness gives even nature free will. The ability to “act randomly” in relation to classical cause-and-effect physics is one of free will’s enablers.

Baggini also believes that neuroscience disproves free will:

The final nail in free will’s coffin seems to come from neuroscience. Various brain studies have claimed to show that actions are initiated in the brain before we have any awareness of having made a decision. In other words, the thought ‘I’ll choose that’ comes after the choice is made. Actions are determined by unconscious, unchosen brain processes, and the feeling of having made a decision comes later.

Julian Baggini, “How to think about free will” at Psyche (May 11, 2022)

He may be talking about the well-known work of Benjamin Libet on action potentials in the brain but Libet came to no such conclusion himself.

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor writes,

The first is the experiments of Benjamin Libet, a mid- to late 20th century neuroscientist who studied the precise timing of electrical activity in the brain and conscious decisions to do simple tasks such pushing a button. Libet found that we have pre-conscious impulses characterized by spikes in brain waves that precede conscious decisions by about a half-second. But he also found that these pre-conscious impulses (which are not freely generated) are merely temptations. We retain the power to accept or reject them, and acceptance or rejection of these temptations is not accompanied by brain waves. Libet called this state “free won’t”: We are bombarded by temptations that are beyond our immediate control but we have the immaterial freedom to accept or reject them.

Michael Egnor, “Neuroscience can help us understand why free will is real” at Mind Matters News (October 17, 2020)

Egnor adds,

The second set of experiments is, in my view, even more compelling. They derive from the work of Wilder Penfield, the pioneer in the neurosurgery of epilepsy in the mid-20th century. Penfield performed over a thousand “awake” brain operations on patients with epilepsy. He stimulated their brains and the recorded the effect of stimulation on these awake patients. He found that he was able to stimulate practically any concrete mental phenomenon—movement of limbs, perceptions of light or smell or tactile sensations, emotions, memories—but he was never able to stimulate abstract thought or free will.

Michael Egnor, “Neuroscience can help us understand why free will is real” at Mind Matters News (October 17, 2020)

The overall problem with Baggini’s approach is two-fold: His substitute for free will is based on misunderstanding the implications of quantum mechanics (Einstein knew better) and of the evidence from neuroscience. And, in any event, if there is no first-order thinking, there is no basis for second-order thinking. Either there is traditional free will or there is no free will.

Nice try though.


You may also wish to read: Does science disprove free will? A physicist says no. Marcelo Gleiser notes that the mind is not a solar system with strict deterministic laws. Apart from simple laws governing neurons, we have no clue what laws the mind follows, though it does show complex nonlinear dynamics. (Michael Egnor)


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A British Philosopher Looks For a Way to Redefine Free Will