Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Free will: an examination of libertarianism and determinism

Since the early days of modern philosophy one of the most interesting and controversial questions to be debated by philosophers is the question of free will. Does man have free will? Are there degrees of free will? If man does not have free will, what controls his actions? All of these are questions which have been heatedly debated over more than 100 years. The two main philosophies which have evolved out of this debate are determinism and metaphysical libertarianism. It is important to distinguish this form of libertarianism from modern political libertarianism since they have little to do with one another. The main stance of determinism is that man does not have free will and that something, whether it be natural causal laws or the will of a divine being, predetermines our actions. Clearly the opposing side, libertarianism, argues that man indeed does have free will and that neither a God or any natural or causal laws predetermine our actions in any way. One very famous proponent of libertarianism was a philosopher writing in the year 1957 named C. A. Campbell. Campbell most famously criticizes the argument of a psychologist named B. F. Skinner who was a proponent of determinism. Campbell argues against Skinner’s principles of positive and negative reinforcement through his belief in the importance of subjective introspection. Campbell argues, very intuitively, that “it is a brute fact of consciousness that we all must make choices” (Hoffmann) and that this fact alone, which is not inter subjectively verifiable, proves the existence of free will. It is clear that this is an elegantly simple and concise criticism of Skinner’s theory of determinism. However, his train of thought which arrives at his conclusion of the “brute fact of consciousness” must be examined further in order to gain a more complete understanding.

Campbell argues against Skinner very well on the subject of free will. But, in order to understand Campbell’s argument we must understand what his idea of free will is. Campbell does make allowances for Hume’s ideas of degree’s of free will, however, Campbell believes that there is only one type of free will which is relevant to this situation. Campbell’s definition of free will is

“A man is said to exercise free will, in a morally significant sense, only when his chosen act is one in which he is the sole author and only if he could have chosen to do otherwise” (Campbell, P. 359).

Campbell also states that common sense sometimes makes allowances for actions which have been partially caused by something over which the agent had no control such as heredity. However, he believes that in many cases where heredity may have had an influence over an agents actions it is still possible for people to go against their nature (Campbell, P. 360).

Campbell writes that one can say they are free in the normal sense when there is no external obstacle which prevents the translating of any action from thought into reality (Campbell, P. 360). This means that even in cases where one’s character or one’s upbringing, or one’s genes would make translating the action from thought into reality difficult they are still free. Until it becomes impossible to translate the action from thought to reality an agent can be said to have free will. Campbell focuses only on the areas of volition in which it is necessary for free will to operate to “save morality” (Campbell, P. 359) he believes that all other areas of volition are merely normative examples of free will and do not deal with the main issue of moral responsibility

Campbell writes that in order to exercise free will in the moral sense one must be the sole author of the action in question. Campbell believes that the answer to the question of “where can we find such an action” (Campbell, P. 361) lies in one of the most universal of human mental processes, moral effort. Regardless of your age, gender, race, or physical or temporal location in human history, it can be stated with a high degree of certainty that everyone has experienced the action of exerting moral effort. Whether it was trying to decide whether to steal candy from a store as a child, or whether it was trying to decide whether to join the army during WWII every person throughout human history has had to exert moral effort in determining their actions. Campbell believes that it is this exertion which gives us the proof for free will. Campbell makes a very compelling point when he writes that we can say with a fair degree of certainty that an act of moral effort is one in which the agent is the sole author. When confronted with the argument that an agent’s character can play a factor in determining the decision, thus making the agent only a partial author, Campbell responds by stating that in most cases exertions of moral effort take place when an agent decides whether or not to act against their character. This means that it would be impossible for an agent’s character to be partial author of an action which goes against itself (Campbell, P. 363). This logically shows that in decisions of moral effort it is clear that the agent is the sole author of the action.

The second main component of Campbell’s formula for free will is that there must have been no external factors which prevented the actions translation from thought into reality. This essentially means that is must have been possible for the agent to have acted otherwise than they did. It cannot be denied that there are cases of moral effort in which there are external forces which prevent an agent from acting as his will dictates, such as a man being robbed at gunpoint. Under normal circumstances no agent would willingly give up money, identification, and personal property simply because they were asked to. However, when presented with a life of death alternative, it becomes much more likely that an agent will act against their character. However, it also cannot be denied that there are situations in which this does not take place. Anyone you ask can testify to being in situations in which they had to exert moral effort to live up to their character, or as Campbell puts it, their “duty” (Campbell, P. 362). In many cases you will find people who will say that they failed in this exertion and were not able to live up to their character. For instance, a normally kind and peaceful man finds his wife sleeping with another man and becomes enraged and kills both of them. The man’s character would dictate that he forgive his wife for her disloyalty. However, this particular man fails in the exertion of moral effort and cannot live up to his duty. This is not a logically unsound scenario, and in fact, has most likely occurred hundreds of thousands of times throughout history. The possibility of an agent of act against their character shows conclusively that in matters of moral effort, when there are no external obstacles obstructing the agent’s decision, it is possible for an agent to do other than his character would dictate. This scenario gives a fairly convincing argument for the existence of free will. If an agent’s exertion of moral effort is, as is shown, an action of which they are the sole author and if that agent could have acted other than he did, as shown by going against one’s character, then it is clear that the action in question constitutes what Campbell defines as a free action.

Campbell’s argument for the existence of free will is not only compelling because it presents a clear and logical argument which offers great intuitive support for the libertarian position he defends, but also because he is able to strongly discredit the arguments of those who would attempt to criticize his argument and argue against the existence of free will. Campbell makes the convincing argument that

“those who criticize libertarianism and free will proponents do so by variants of two main arguments, the argument from predictability, and the argument from the alleged meaninglessness of an act supposed to be the self’s act and yet not an expression of the self’s character” (Campbell, P. 363).

He then details his criticism and objection to each argument in turn. The argument by predictability is one in which the critic of free will believes that he can predict with a high degree of probability the actions of those whose character he knows well. You believe that you can predict fairly certainly that your friend who loves basketball would not pass up chances to a pair of courtside Raptors tickets. The critic of free will believes this is because the actions of your friend are dictated by his character. That his love of basketball leave him no choice but to accept the tickets. The critic says that the libertarian must concede that since agents have free will, that anything is possible, and that we should not be surprised if our friend refuses the tickets for no reason. Campbell’s response to this argument against free will is both simple, and elegant. In cases such as this, where there is no struggle between what our character dictates and what we strongly desire the free will Campbell is advocating, that is the free will associated with moral responsibility, has no business (Campbell, P. 364). This argument from predictability is simply irrelevant to the type of free will being discussed here. It is not the job of libertarian philosophers to prove that all choices made by every agent are totally free of constraints. They merely strive to prove that some decisions made by some agents are free, and that it is therefore possible for agents to be held morally responsible for their actions.

Campbell’s argument, although not directly opposed to Skinner’s two principles of positive and negative reinforcement, seem to point out a major flaw in Skinner’s determinist position. Skinner believes that all of human behaviour can be causally explained through the application of positive and negative reinforcement. However, Skinner fails to recognize the fact that certain people have different definitions of what constitutes positive reinforcement. Although Skinner would say that looking into someone’s personal background he could make inferences about what they would deem positive and negative and would therefore be able to apply his principles this causes a serious problem for Skinner. Skinner’s application of the principles of positive and negative reinforcement are simply a very complex, scientific form of the argument from predictability. No matter how often Skinner’s principles are correct he can still not make the statement that applying positive and negative reinforcement will guarantee with perfect certainty that an agent will act in a specific way. Simply by definition Skinner’s principles fail to do this. Positive and negative reinforcement only state that they will make an action more or less likely. This is an extremely important problem since it means that Skinner can only make predictions about behaviour and cannot actually know for certain what anyone exposed to a certain stimulus will do. Skinner is simply attempting to turn the argument from predictability into something it is not; a scientifically infallible formula. He has not succeeded. Skinner’s principles are still simply a form of the argument from predictability and, as Campbell has already stated, this form of argument is simply irrelevant to the argument at hand.

Campbell’s argument against the argument from predictability makes Skinner’s application of positive and negative reinforcement a useless gesture. Campbell does not even attempt to argue that positive and negative reinforcement do not do what they say they will, because he doesn’t have to. It is clear that simply because positive and negative reinforcement may influence our actions, even to a very high degree of probability, they do not dictate our actions. Simply because you have been starved for days and are presented with the stimulus of food does not mean for certain that you will eat. You may suspect the food is poisoned, or you may not wish to shame yourself in front of your captors. At this point Skinner would most likely make the argument that the idea of being poisoned or being shamed are negative reinforcements that an agent is trying to avoid. However, this creates another problem for him. If an agent is subject to the negative reinforcement of starvation as well as the negative reinforcement of shame or the possibility of death and is then presented with a positive reinforcement in the form of food the agent must make a choice. There is no scientific method which can show us that positive and negative reinforcement are quantitative and measureable or that we can know at what level of negative reinforcement an agent would perform action a rather than action b. This is because positive and negative reinforcement are merely influences upon our behaviour. No matter how great the influence the final battle between which stimulus to respond to and which to ignore comes down to the will of the agent. The final action of whether or not to eat the food after being starved for days if you suspect it has been poisoned comes down to a choice. And it is this choice which shows to us very clearly that agents are free to act against the influence of positive and negative reinforcement.

C. A. Campbell writes from a strongly incompatiblist position in which he states that determinism and libertarianism cannot co-exist; that if determinism is true then free will must not exist and vice versa. Whether or not this is true cannot be explicitly proven from his argument. However, his argument does provide very strong, explicit support to discount the determinist position. Regardless of the truth of incompatiblism it can be logically concluded that if determinism is false free will must exist. This is essentially what Campbell sets out to prove. His argument against determinism is strong and compelling and is set down in a manner which makes it simple for anyone to understand. He believes that the very existence of choice clearly proves the existence of free will. In order to prove precisely that man does indeed have free will Campbell sets out both his own foundation and the foundation of those who would criticize him. He sets out his definition of free will and his belief in what makes an action free. He then examines several criticisms of libertarianism, specifically the argument from predictability and the argument from the alleged meaninglessness of an act supposed to be the self’s act and yet not an expression of the self’s character. Although he does not explicitly mention Skinner or his work his response to the argument from predictability gives us a very clear picture of how Skinner’s work actually relates to the debate over free will. Campbell states that although our actions may be influenced, influence alone does not impede the existence of free will. Campbell’s work clearly discounts Skinner’s opinion about free will and is a very clear and elegant criticism of his ideas. Anyone involved in this debate may choose whether to side with Skinner or with Campbell; but that choice alone will only make one side more right.