Monday, December 19, 2022

De libero arbitrio

A perennial issue has come up again elsewhere. Yes, Tofians, another physicist has strayed from the pasture. Sabine Hossenfelder posted a YouTube video a while back which the Algorithm presented to TOF's oculars for sober consideration. In it, Dr Hossenfelder provides her insight as a physicist on the philosophical concept of Free Will. She doesn't buy it. (But then, she was forced to say so by vast impersonal forces, wasn't she?) Her objections remind TOF of Mary Midgley's dictum that those who spurn philosophy are usually in thrall to obsolete forms of it; in this case, to 18th/19th century mechanistic philosophies. Most of her objections were considered by T. Aquinas a millennium and a half more than half a millennium ago. In fact, Tommy raised a great many more than she does, but she undoubtedly believes hers are new and Modern. She has at least framed them in a Modern Way and presumes that Science! (a method for investigating the metrical properties of material bodies) is somehow apropos for investigating the ontology of philosophical concepts! Had her only tool been a hammer, I am sure that Free Will would have possessed sterling, nail-like qualities.

But, TOF (I hear you say), you cogent codger of cogitation, if the mind's outputs are the product of mere external forces, should we pay any more attention to S. Hossenfelder's brain-outputs than to the whisperings of trees rustled by the wind? 

Answer: TOF is retired and has just delivered myself of a novel; so there is nothing urgent on his plate.

Let the games begin! 

Nota bene: For those unfamiliar with the Questions genre, the format lays out

  1. the Question to be determined

  2. the Principle Objections against it

  3. A single supperting statement (Sed contra = but on the other hand...0

  4. The determination of the writer (Respondeo - I answer that...)

  5. Responses to each of the initial objections

Quaestio: Whether the Will be Free

Objection 1. It would seem that the Will is not free because the brain is physical matter, composed of atoms, and therefore its acts are determined by the physical forces acting upon it.  If we knew all the forces acting on a person, we would see that he had no choice but to to do as he did. [Hossenfelder 2020]

Objection 2. Furthermore, physical Laws are expressed in differential equations and given the initial conditions, all future states can be thereby calculated. As Hossenfelder's brain atoms put out, "the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the Big Bang. We are just watching it play out.” [Hoss., op cit]

Objection 3. It would seem that the Will is not free because no one chooses that which he deems repugnant, but always chooses that which seems best. The Big Bang resulted in Sabine Hossenfelder's brain atoms emitting, “your choice is determined by what you want.” Therefore, the Will is not free to choose otherwise. [Hoss.,op cit]

Objection 4. Psychologist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments that showed that the brain “registers” the decision to make movements before a person consciously decides to move. And psychologist Daniel Wegner’s brain state declared, “The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting one’s thought as the cause of the act.” Our sense of making choices or decisions is just an awareness of what the brain has already decided for us." Therefore, decisions are made subconsciously by the brain and not by the Will.

Objection 5. According to law professor Barbara H. Fried, "our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements...are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance.” Therefore, the will is not free and we should not hold malefactors blameworthy. [Fried 2013]

Sed contra. Mathematician and physicist Alfred North Whitehead said, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” [The Function of Reason (1929), Beacon Books, 1958, p. 16]

Respondeo. First let us clarify what is meant by a motion of the Will;then of what is meant by its freedom.  

1. The Will is the appetite for the products of conception, i.e., for concepts

As such, it is analogous to the Emotions, which are appetites for percepts, that is, for concrete objects directly perceived [or recalled] by the senses. The Will may supervene over the Emotions. This can be seen by comparing the animal emotion to eat when it is hungry versus the human decision to forego the food for the sake of a diet or a holy fast. 

We can diagram the human psyche as below [Fig 1] . It incorporates the basic stimulus-response loop common to all animals; viz.,

  • Sensation. Stimuli [photons, compression waves, pheromones, ...] spray like a fire hose on the outer senses, the organs of sight, hearing, smell, et al. The neural impulses thus triggered arrive in different areas of the brain at different instants.
  • Perception. The inner senses select and unite these sensations via the common sense and form an whole-istic "image" via the imagination. The Image can later be recalled by memory.The Image is less detailed than the immediate Sensation, and the Memory, less detailed still. The estimative power of the imagination deems the percept desirable or obnoxious. This re-cognition may be hard-wired or learned.
  • Emotions. This engenders an appetite for [or revulsion to] the perceived concrete particular.
  • Motion. This triggers the animal to approach or retreat from the perceived object.  Motion may also be triggered without emotion via the autonomic nervous system: hearts beat, stomachs digest, and struck knees jerk without any particular desires.

Fig 1. Schematic of sensitive and rational psyche

Thus far, all animals. For rational animals, i.e., for creatures able to give reasons for their acts, two additional powers are appended; viz., 

  • Intellect reflects on the percepts and "pulls out" [abstracts] concepts. Like the estimative power of the imagination, the deliberative power of the intellect deems the concept desirable or not.
  • Volition then wants the desired concept [or rejects an undesireable one]. This wanting/not wanting supervenes on any parallel visceral emotion raised by direct perception [incl. memory] of the concrete particular, such as a pleasant taste of this apricot or gentle touch of that silk scarf. For example:

Adam perceives a barking Rottweiler and abstracts a concept of dog that he finds frightening. His Will produces a fear of dogs in general, and thereafter wants avoid all canines. This is quite different from the direct and immediate fear-reaction to the actual Rottweiler. 

Bertha encounters a rampaging mob smashing store windows and looting, and she feels in the moment an instinctive fear and desires to avoid it. But then her intellect apprehends that the mob is rioting for social justice, a concept of which her Will approves. She overrides her fears and either approves or even joins in to get her fair share of the loot.

In humans, every act of the Intellect is accompanied by an act of the Imagination. Try  conceiving of triangularity without imagining a specific triangle: perhaps an equilateral triangle, a scalene triangle or the musical instrument, or even a love triangle. Try to conceive of "dog" without imagining a specific dog: perhaps a scruffy mutt or a French-groomed poodle. Since the Imagination involves Sensory memories, a neural pattern will appear in the brain.

It is easy to mistake imaginative behavior for the intellective. The former permits at least some animals to be trained. A bear can be taught to dance because he esteems the dance as good due to the rewards he is given for doing it; but few bruins take up ballet on their own. Cathy OTOH conceives of ballet in the abstract after perceiving instances of it in particular and deems it a good, and so takes lessons and rehearses. Debbie with the same perceptionsdeems it a waste of her time,

2. What do we mean by freedom of the Will? 

Freedom is the absence of compulsion. (Chastek, 2014a). So the Will is free to the extent that it is not compelled [or determined] toward any one particular decision or blocked in its natural movement toward the Good. Think free fall. 

 In college, TOF and his classmates noted that when the armed robber sticks a gun in your ribs and says, "Your money or your life!" the choice is not free, but compelled, We raised this objection with the spirit that no one in history before the evolution of the college sophomore had ever thought of it. Then what is that word OR doing in the sentence? But everyone would choose to relinquish the money rather than the life! Maybe so, but no one says that a free choice is necessarily the stupid one, or that it is not arrived at by weighing the pros and cons in the chooser's value system. For example, Frank is trained in hand-to-hand combat and notices that the robber's gun has the safety engaged. Having more facts at his disposal, he reaches a determination to grapple with the robber, rather than hand over his hard-earned cash. 

Those accustomed to dealing with inanimate matter may be inclined to call such things 'forces' rather than 'information,' but their Weltanschauung was formed in the era of dead machines, well before the development of software, so they are inclined to conceive the mind as full of gears, levers, and billiard balls,

In particular, there are many things that free will is not.

  • Free Will is not random . 
  • Free Will is not unpredictable . 
  • Free Will is not unreasoned. 
  • Free Will is not unmotivated. 
Quite the contrary. As the appetite of the Intellect, the Will is a rational power. It moves in accordance with the judgements of the Intellect and so always has reasons for its motions. Compare this to the Modern, Nietzschean Triumph of the Will, which elevates Wanting over Thinking.

3. That the Will is free can be easily seen. 

  • a) It is impossible to want what we do not know.
  • b) Our knowledge is often imperfect or lacking. 
  • c) Therefore, our wants have "slack" or "degrees of freedom."

Suppose Edgar deems World Peace a good thing and therefore desires it. But of what does this Peace consist? By what means might it be achieved? Edgar may be uncertain or unclear on the best course to take and decides to 

  • join the World Peace Association and participate in street theater. OR 
  • write stern letters to the New York Times in support of Peace. OR  
  • conquer all his rivals, as Caesar Augustus did. OR...

The Will is free to the extent that is it not determined to a particular course of action.

When knowledge is complete, the Will cannot withhold consent. For example, the Intellect apprehends proposition "1+1=2," as those symbols are normally understood, as a true statement and therefore the Will necessarily chooses, "Yes." 

This may not be the Late Modern's notion of Free Will, but it is not "changing the definition." It is how the freedom of the Will was defined by the people who first discussed it; e.g.., Thomas Aquinas. In fact, he listed twenty-four objections to the Question, including most of those raised again by Late Moderns.

4. Not all acts of a human are free. Some are autonomic, like the knee jerk, others can be ascribed to genetic factors, to habits, to training, and so on. Aquinas gave the example of a scholar unwittingly stroking his beard while deep in thought. A trained musician does not deliberate over each note before he plays it, but has practiced the piece so thoroughly that it has become muscle memory and he plays without thinking about bodily movement. Free choice entered into the decision to learn the piece in the first place -- to engage in the behavior that through repetition became a habit. Note the distinction between the abstract, concept of deciding to learn the piece and the physical acts of moving the fingers. It may well be the case that most acts fall into this latter category, which is why Aquinas  distinguished between "acts of a human" in general and specifically "human acts," i.e., rational acts. 

Chastek noted that "the difference between a Relativistic and Newtonian view of the world is negligible in everyday practical units. In the same way the free actions of human beings are a negligible amount of the total actions in a single human body) and so the difference between a universe of complete determinism and one with free human action is negligible. Nevertheless, the great scientific revolutions turned on seeing the significance in things that were negligible within their context."  [Chastek 2013]

Reply to Objection 1. This objection begs the question. It presumes as an act of faith that a host of “hidden variables” are there whether discoverable or not.

Furthermore, since under this objection our thoughts are simply brain states determined at the Big Bang and our thinking is just as much an illusion as our willing. Yet, this is never mentioned by deniers of free will.

Indeed, if actions are determined by outside factors=, all action is an illusion, since there are no factors outside the universe, the universe cannot act [Chastek, 2014b], and we are back to Parmenides and Zeno's paradoxes.

Reply to Objection 2. This objection is Calvinism in fancy dress. The math approximates certain metrical properties of empirical reality, and as the great physicist Henri Poincare noted, these calculations grow increasingly uncertain as we extend their range or increase their precision t0 "the whole story of the universe in every single detail." Whether wittingly or not, he cast doubt on the very idea that quantitative models could be used to predict the future (Ekeland, 1988: 35). 

Paleontologist S. J. Gould once wrote that if the “tape of evolution” were rerun, we would not expect the same species to emerge. And if a purely mechanical process like natural selection is not deterministic, why should we nail the human Will to the doors of the Big Bang? If the extinction of various species today was written already into the Big Bang, it is hard to see how any selection at all is possible, whether natural selection or free will. 

Reply to Objection 3.  The Will is determined to the Good as its final cause just as the Intellect is determined to the True. But the generic desire for Good includes many diverse specific goods and does not compel the Will to any specific one. “If there is only one possible way to achieve the end, then the reason for willing the end and the reason for willing the means are the same. But such is not the case in the matter under discussion, since there are many ways to achieve happiness. And so human beings, although they necessarily will happiness, do not necessarily will any of the things leading to happiness [Aquinas 2003: Q.VI]. That the Will always chooses the apparently best alternative does not coerce the Will, since it is the deliberation as to the best is up to the individual. A free choice is not random or unmotivated. Hossenfelder's version of Nietzsche’s Triumph of the Will – “what you want determines what you choose” -- is akin to "wet streets cause rain." It gets things precisely backward since what you want just is the product of the will.

Reply to Objection 4.  "All contemporary neuroscience-informed arguments against free choice confuse Buridan’s Ass Decisions with rational-moral ones" (Chastek 2018). Libet's experiment did not address desires for abstracted concepts, and so did not address the Will's freedom. It involved only simple physical movements, such as flexing the wrist, and these might well have only physical causes or inclinations.They do not seem to advance the Will's motion toward the Good.

Participants in Libet's experiment were asked to note the moment at which they were consciously aware of the decision to move, while EEG electrodes attached to their head monitored their brain activity. Activity in the supplementary motor area (SMA) was designated a "readiness potential" and defined as the real "moment of decision." Aside from the imprecision of self-reporting the moment of conscious awareness or the somewhat arbitrary designation of  the brain activity as the actual decision point, the SMA is usually associated with imagining movements rather than actually performing them. So, it is not implausible that the SMA activity would precede the subject's self-reporting of decision. None of this lays a glove on Free Will. Even if the decision to move was made by Freud's imagined "subconscious," that subconscious is part of the person. 

Reply to Objection 5. Our habits, inclinations, abilities and such are among those factors which we consider when making a deliberate choice. A free choice is not an unmotivated one. And if malefactors should not be fined or imprisoned because they were not responsible for their decisions, why should physicists be given Nobel prizes for theirs?


  1. Aristotle (350 BC). Nicomachean Ethics, tr. W.D. Ross
  2. Chastek, James (2009), Free will and electrodes (Just Thomism, December 30, 2009)
  3. ______  (2013) "Free will as negligible." (Just Thomism, January 12, 2013) 
  4. _______ (2014a) "The free will defense" (Just Thomism, June 4, 2014) 
  5. ______ (2014b) "The necessity of soul from the reality of action." (Just Thomism,June 24, 2014)
  6. ______ (2018) "Free will and final causality" (Just Thomism, January 26, 2018).
  7. Ekeland, Ivar (1988). Mathematics and the Unexpected. (Univ of Chicago Press)
  8. Flynn, Michael (2016). In Psearch of Psyche: Let's Get Moving. The TOFSpot.
  9. Fried, Barbara H. (2013). "Beyond Blame" (Boston Review. June 28, 2013)
  10. Hossenfelder, Sabine (2020)  "You don't have free will, but don't worry." (YouTube Oct 10, 2020)
  11. Searle, John R. (1990) "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?" in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Nov., 1990), pp. 21-37 (American Philosophical Association)
  12. Thomas Aquinas (2003). Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (On Evil). tr. Richard Regan (Oxford University Press)

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