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Volition is self-evident and axiomatic. The universe works by deterministic laws. And yet choice is not an illusion. How is this possible?

This page is a stub, created on 2020-04-17 (last updated on 2024-04-15). Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.

This is a favorite topic of many philosophy students. It's fun to think about. But the most important lesson I've learned about this over the years is that it doesn't matter. While I think there are valuable things to learn from engaging in it, this is mostly just a fun intellectual exercise.

This will likely be a post that evolves over time (for a long time), as I continue to refine my articulation and address more angles.

Here are a few things I want to address (and this is by no means exhaustive):

  • why volition is self-evident, and that in a contest between that and "hard determinism", why I would side with volition
  • what volition is and isn't (and why typical characterizations like "the power to have done otherwise" are illegitimate)
  • why I don't like the phrase "free will" (ie, that it implies "contra-causal freedom")
  • what choice is and how it can be both deterministic and meaningful (and relatedly, what the role of epistemic ignorance is)
    • different senses of choice:
      • deciding in advance to raise your hand or not versus the choice in the moment of what you do
      • choosing something for yourself (directing your behavior) versus what it means when someone chooses something for you or "takes away" your choice
  • connection to whether you can choose your values or decide to believe a lie (eg, can you choose to like chocolate ice cream or that 2+2=4?)
  • alternative conceptions of causality:
    • "action action" : "things act in accordance with their natures" :: utilitarianism : virtue ethics
    • "an entity acts in accordance with its nature" is primarily an epistemological lens, where "entity" is given by perception, and "its nature" is a conceptual abstraction
      • can be applied at any level of granularity for what might be conceptualized as an "entity", from the subatomic to the galactic
      • what we think of as "billiard ball causality" is just "fundamental entities" acting in accordance with their natures, which we describe with equations that model the "behavioral relationships", and at any level of abstraction/approximation, such "events" are an emergent property of those "fundamental entities" in that configuration
      • alternatively, if "entity" is what's given in perception, then the "entities act" perspective is a special case / species of the "billiard ball causality" view
      • another possible lens is that the substrate of the universe (the characteristics of which are described by the wave function on the Bohmian Mechanics view) is what's "pushing around" its contents (physical entities)
      • four-dimensional thinking: the universe is a whole, with every point in "4-space" defined, and "causality" is just the description of moving along the time dimension
  • how understanding how something works (eg, volition, choice, a volcano) does not cause it to stop existing
  • the connection between moral accountability/agency and determinism
    • mental incapacity/illness
    • "policeman at the elbow" thought experiment
    • connection to mindset: we praise effort and the process, not fixate on the result; it doesn't matter as much what the result is / whether it was predetermined, but the responsibility/praise/agency is in the doing of the work that leads to the result
    • The response to "You should do X." being countered with "I just have to do whatever is determined." is that being told "You should do X." is part of the causal factors influencing what the person has to do.
    • From a certain angle, it's quite irrelevant whether volition is deterministic. Holding people accountable for actions that are a product of volition (whatever that exactly is in terms of brain structures and however it works) has tremendous causal power in determining their later actions. The truth of that fact is part of what causes us to hold others accountable. Someone does not need to have literally been able to do otherwise for us to hold them accountable; it is sufficient that the action was (dominantly) a product of their choice (ie, deliberative process). If an action wasn't the product of such a process, it wouldn't make sense to hold them accountable, since it would be useless. Autonomic and other non-volitional processes aren't sensitive to being held morally accountable. This is the essence of the connection between volition and moral accountability, not some unprovable claim or supposition that a person could have literally done/chosen otherwise.
    • judging people in context and the relevance of evolution, cultural norms, in-utero development, genetics, childhood, present circumstances and incentives, etc
    • as neuroscience advances, we have more and more predictive power over people's behavior
      • Imagine, hypothetically, that we could predict behavior with 99.9999999% confidence (or even 100% for purposes of our thought experiment, however physically impossible that would actually be, given what seems like our inherent inability to know everything about quantum phenomena). Would that destroy moral accountability? No! Because, just like, metaphysically, whether you could have done otherwise is irrelevant to whether an action was the product of volition (the factor that actually counts), so too with others' ability to predict your behavior, whether someone could know it in advance is irrelevant to whether an action was the product of your volition. In some sense, you could say that the point of moral accountability is future-looking (not some retroactive fairness / social phenomenon, à la Sapolsky), and regardless of whether behavior was predictable (because we happened to know enough about the deterministic volitional process and all its inputs for a particular individual in a particular circumstance), holding someone morally accountable for behavior that was a product of their volition makes sense because volition is precisely a process that's sensitive to moral accountability as in input.
  • how the search for explanatory reasons for people's choices and behaviors is implicitly premised on determinism
  • the connection to epistemology, especially induction, concept-formation, and principles
    • why you can't use induction and deduction, which presuppose determinism, to establish non-determinism / randomness (even if you can prove it's impossible to know something)
    • connection to measurement being inherently relational and relationships/dynamics being a valid lens for causality
  • how causality must imply determinism
  • the difference between "random" (metaphysical) and "effectively random" (epistemic)
  • how "but quantum mechanics!" is an attempt to rationalize volition while still voiding it of the meaning non-determinists want it to have
  • consciousness as an action performed by the brain (approximately synonymous with awareness), not a thing; brain states as reflective of experiential/mind states; connection to "chemical imbalances" versus unpleasant emotions
    • The mind / consciousness (and our affective, experiential states) is an action performed by the brain (the physical matter). Loosely, you can think of the mind as an emergent property of the brain. I think it's weird to say that legs cause running. Legs do running. The legs moving in a particular way is running. The brain configured in a particular way and the chemicals whizzing around in a particular way is some affective state, such as depression, or some process such as consciousness or awareness or choice.
  • what brain states (eg, "limbic system hijack", "sympathetic activation", "dorsal vagal collapse", intoxication) result in compromised volition and why it makes sense to say things like "he couldn't do X", when doing X is typically the result of or is a volitional action
    • how psychotropic drugs can affect volition and behavior
  • "could have done otherwise" as a conceptual shorthand or metaphor, not dissimilar in principle from "having rights"; different senses of "can do A or B", different senses of "automatic"
  • feeling or sense of "could have done otherwise" in retrospect is not proof, though it is an item of data to consider carefully
    • that we possess some power that we call volition is self-evident, but how volition works is a complex scientific conceptual conclusion
    • appearance of volition's mechanics does not tell us directly/automatically/infallibly what they are
    • connection to other illusions that "delude" our senses
    • connection to Sam Harris's "meditation" on how "thoughts just arise"
      • You can't control the thoughts that arise, but that kind of control is not what constitutes volition. There are all kinds of bodily processes that we can't control, including mental processes, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something that we do control. (Related: A person is the control.) There's a failure here to differentiate between different senses of "controlling one's next thoughts".
  • how the non-determinist position implies mystical dualism / mind-body dichotomy
  • the epistemological error in the view of some determinists that "free will" cannot exist (by defining it out of existence)
    • from a Facebook post by Paul Hsieh and my comment on it:
      • I'm sure they believe that their urging just has some kind of deterministic casual effect on the people they're trying to urge, via some other choice-making, deliberative power that controls action, but is, for some reason, not free will.
      • Like, those people who say that there's no such thing as free will must believe that there is some kind of brain process that can be influenced and that goes about performing deliberation and directing actions, and yet instead of calling that thing "free will" and understanding and debating how it works, they instead define "free will" as something other than what actually exists, and then claim that there's no such thing as "free will", thereby side-stepping the entire conversation around the thing that actually does exist, which now has no word to refer to it, so we have no way to think about it. Yeah, okay.
    • This is at the root of one of the errors that Robert Sapolsky makes in his book Determined
  • whether AI can have genuine volition, even if it's deterministic
  • the evolutionary perspective: at what point did we evolve the gene(s) to be exempt from deterministic physical causality?
  • why I don't use the terms "compatibilist" or "compatibilism" to describe myself or my views
  • connection to other terms, such as "hard determinism", "soft determinism", "indeterminism", and "self-causation"
  • what sense of "determinism" I think Ayn Rand was actually objecting to (and what I think is misunderstood by many Objectivists)
    • the ability/choice to focus/think or not, to active your mind or not
    • Per Craig Biddle at TOS-Con 2022, the determinist view commits the fallacy of the frozen abstraction as applied to "causality", because determinist accept mechanistic and biological causality, but not volitional causality. But I think it's the opposite: non-determinists are committing the fallacy of the frozen abstraction as it applies to necessitation or determinism: They accept determinism for simpler phenomena, but then need to invent something different when it comes to man and his brain processes.
    • two different meanings of the word "determinism":
      • volition has little causal power over outcomes or to affect the course of a person's life (better called "fatalism", HT Andrew Zey)
        • eg, no matter what career I pursue or how much effort or smarts I invest, I'll end up being poor
        • Naturalism in aesthetics
        • tragic heroes in literature
        • time travel stories where someone goes back in time, and no matter what they do, the outcome remains the same
      • like other phenomena in reality, volition has causal power to effect outcomes and is mechanistically deterministic
        • This view doesn't directly comment on whether volition has causal power, but that's an implication: Since volition is something that happens in reality, of course it can affect how things unfold, the same way that anything in reality can have that power (to greater or lesser extents in various contexts). "Physical determinism" can't both have "fixed points" and "non-fixed points", where arbitrary things like whether I am poor (a "fixed point") are not a function of antecedent factors (the "non-fixed points"). I will be poor or not precisely because of all the things that came before, including the contribution of my volitional power and resultant actions. Under "physical determinism", if I'm going to be poor, there's no such thing as "no matter what I do", because whatever I do is the only thing I could do. It can't be that I have to be poor, but I don't have to do any of the things that lead to it. It's all or nothing.
  • some learnings from The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts
  • maybe some polemics around what prominent cultural figures have to say about it? (meh)