Our experience of libertarian free will

Flickers of Freedom is a nice blog, with contributors who are among the philosophical movers and shakers in the contemporary free will debate. This month’s guest contributor is Marcus Arvan, and my memory was jogged by a comment he made on one of his recent posts:

Another obvious source of trouble for Kant (the one that Grenberg points to in her paper on the Phenomenological Failure of Groundwork III) is that Kant seems to think that he establishes noumenal freedom through our experience of practical reason (i.e. the manner in which we *seem* to experience ourselves as libertarian-free from a first-personal perspective). As many critics of libertarianism have long noted, this kind of argument seems like super-poor evidence for libertarianism (I would dare say it is no evidence at all). Just because we *seem* to have libertarian free will when we act, that’s no reason to think that we *do* have it. After all, our seeming to have it might well just be a deterministic illusion!

Arvan’s point is that the empirical case for libertarian free will (LFW) – from our alleged experience of such freedom to the reality of such freedom – seems a bit thin. In his (excellent) book on mind-body dualism, The Emergent Self, William Hasker briefly advances the position that Arvan seems to be critiquing. Since I had to work through this issue a bit when prepping for my philosophy of mind class years ago, I’ll share a few thoughts that occurred to me then.

In ch. 4 of his book, on “Free Will and Agency,” Hasker notes that the philosophers Thomas Nagel and John Searle hold that we experience the following things:

  1. “Antecedent circumstances, including the conditions of the agent, leave some of the things we do undetermined: they are determined only by our choices, which are motivationally explicable but not themselves causally determined.” (Nagel)
  2. “My reason for doing it is the whole reason why it happened, and no further explanation is either necessary or possible.” (Nagel)
  3. “There are all sorts of experiences that we have in life where it seems just a fact of our experience that though we did one thing, we feel we know perfectly well that we could have done something else.” (Searle)
  4. “We know we could have done something else… we might have acted on those [other] reasons and chosen that something else.” (Searle)
  5. Human behavior isn’t predictable like the behavior of physical objects, because “we could have often done otherwise than we in fact did. Human freedom is just a fact of experience.” (Searle)

In light of the evident facts of empirical experience summarized in (1)-(5) above, Hasker then asks the question:

“Why shouldn’t we take the descriptions offered by Nagel and Searle at face value, as accounts of the way the world really is?”

That’s a pretty important question. After all, our experience has prima facie evidentiary value for what is the case. The fact that it seems to me that I am typing is as good a reason as any to think that I am actually typing. If how the world seems to us isn’t good reason for thinking that’s how the world really is, there are precious few things we are justified in believing.

Still, I can think of at least three replies to Hasker’s question.

One reply: because, quite simply, they’re not descriptive of our experience.

It is simply not the case that we experience the things that Nagel and Searle say we experience. Libertarian freedom is a power of some sort, a power to do otherwise in the same exact circumstances. Well, I only know about my powers by way of empirical experience, and then I reflect on that retrospectively. And even if you take all of my past empirical experience and add it all up, it simply isn’t fine-grained enough to support the contention that I have the power to do otherwise in the same exact circumstances. The Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP), and Hasker’s lengthy definition of ‘free will’ (p. 85), simply isn’t a deliverance of my experience. In fact, I want to say something much stronger here: it couldn’t be a deliverance of my experience.

What if I were to claim that, for every past choice you have made, if you had done something else instead, a little pink unicorn would have floated by and said, “I love you”? My claim is that if you had refrained from doing anything you in fact did, the unicorn would have communicated with you. Now, this is a possibly true thesis. You perfectly well understand what I am claiming. But your first question to me should be, “Why should I believe such a claim?” And the reason you should ask that is because, not only do we not have any empirical evidence for the truth of the unicorn claim, we could never in principle have such evidence.

For we never experience the truth of a counterfactual. We never have empirical access to what we would have done. We only have empirical access to what we have in fact done. (We only have one life to live, and we don’t get to rewind the tape.)

It’s hard to see how PAP, or LFW, is empirically more evident to me than the unicorn thesis. Why should I believe that, for every (free, responsible) choice I have made, I could have refrained from making that choice and done something different instead? What is my empirical evidence for this? How is this a description of my own experience? It isn’t.

That’s not to say we might not have various intuitions supporting PAP or LFW. But it isn’t right to say it’s a deliverance of our empirical experience. Searle claims that “the sense of alternative possibilities, is built into the very structure of conscious, voluntary, intentional human behaviour” (83). I disagree. I don’t experience my power to do otherwise in the same exact circumstances, and neither do you.

Another reply: whatever empirical component we have here is too vague to decide the issue between libertarians and compatibilists.

At best, what happens is that I am able to imagine myself refraining. But this is pretty vague. Maybe I could have refrained in slightly different circumstances (such as when I wanted to do otherwise). Or maybe I could have refrained in exactly the same circumstances. (The latter is actually hard to imagine: same desires, same thoughts?)

But the problem is that I don’t have access to every fact about my circumstances. I can’t keep it all in my head (biochemistry, all of my wants and desires, all of my experiences up to that time?). So I don’t know, when I imagine myself refraining, whether I’m imagining myself refraining in exactly the same circumstances, or not. So this isn’t enough for grounding PAP. It’s too vague.

And, of course, imagining myself having a power is quite different from experiencing myself having the power. I can imagine flying unaided, but that gives no credence to the view that I have the power to fly unaided.

One correspondent of mine put the point like this: “I can easily imagine a possible world very similar to this one in which I choose a different item from the menu than I did in fact choose.  But I can’t imagine a possible world absolutely identical to this one (at least with respect to past states) in which I choose differently, for the precise reason that my imagination just isn’t that fine-grained.  Yet libertarians often treat the first imagining as though it were the second.”

Yet another reply: psychological determinism is actually more empirically grounded than alternate possibilities.

Hasker says that “psychological determinism,” or “determination by the strongest motive… is empirically vacuous, since the ‘strongest motive’ can only be identified retrospectively, by seeing which motive has in fact led to action” (84).

But isn’t this at least superior to PAP? How do you determine PAP retrospectively? After all, at least with psychological determinism, you’ve experienced what seems to you to be your strongest motive at the time, and you identify that retroactively. How do you experience your ability to do otherwise in the same exact circumstances, either in the present or by reflecting on the past? These aren’t “palpable facts of experience” (85).

Hasker says, “Rejecting this [libertarian] understanding of experience ought to be recognized as a major form of skepticism, along with skepticism about the external world, skepticism about other minds, and other varieties” (84). But maybe it is just being cautious about what experience actually delivers? I think there can be some very powerful arguments for LFW, including arguments from intuition that link LFW with moral responsibility. But I don’t think the case for LFW is given any favors by grounding it in empirical experience.

None of this shows, of course, that we don’t have libertarian free will. All it shows is that we should be somewhat cautious about accepting empirical arguments for its reality. (And I think Hasker would agree; his argument for LFW from empirical experience is not the centerpiece of ch. 4.)