On the Problem of Voluntary Action

I’m sharing the talk I gave tonight at the event “Free Will and Determinism,” held at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The event was organized by Psi Chi Honor Society and Philosophy Club.

“The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.”

This is a quote from the fictional F. Alexander book A Clockwork Orange, which appears in Anthony Burgess 1962 dystopian novel by the same name, a work the author himself characterizes as too didactic to be good fiction; but it’s its didacticism that makes it a useful entry point into the free will versus determinism problematic.

Set in a possible future British society, in the context of a subculture of youth violence that is sweeping the country, A Clockwork Orange tells the story of a teenager, Alex, who is convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. There Alex learns about an experimental behavior-modification treatment based on classical conditioning – the Ludovico Technique – and secures, in exchange for commutation of his sentence, and against the wishes of the prison chaplain, a spot as a research subject. Showing film clips that graphically depict sex and violence, and pairing these with a nausea-inducing drug, the principal investigator, Dr. Brodsky, uses aversion therapy to “teach” Alex’s body and mind (same thing?) to abhor sex and violence.

After the treatment regimen is complete, Dr. Brodsky tests Alex’s new character before an audience of government officials and other interested parties, including the prison chaplain. Standing on a stage, Alex is confronted by an aggressive male, whom he wishes to destroy, and a partially nude female, whom he desires to seduce. In both cases, Alex becomes violently ill and cannot carry out his will. The audience is impressed – except the prison chaplain.

“Choice.” Rumbles the prison charlie. “He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.”

“These are subtleties,” smiled Dr. Brodsky. “We are not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime —’ “And,” chipped in a bolshy well-dressed government minister, “with relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons.”

In essence, what matters to them is that the technique works, not whether it tramples sacred moral high grounds.

The rationalizations of authority depicted in Burgess’s novel reflects a longstanding assumption of human nature in the behavioral sciences, going back at least as far as the psychology of John Watson. The greatest behaviorist of them all, B. F. Skinner, punctuated this line of thinking in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), writing that individuals are no more to be blamed for their bad behavior as they are to be praised for their good behavior (except where such praise can bring about desired behavior), since there is really no such thing as free will; nearly all behavior is a collection of conditioned responses; and so free will is an illusion (or delusion, as neuroscientists Sam Harris characterized it at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2012).

There is something that feels right about the prison chaplain’s complaint. In the realm of criminal responsibility, Western society does require that the person who will be made to pay for her wrongdoing will have done wrong voluntarily. How can a person who cannot control his behavior be held responsible for his actions? Indeed, to be responsible for one’s actions, one much have free chosen them. Philosopher Peter Millican asserts: “The basic problem of free will comes down to the notion of moral responsibility.”

And so, in the classical theory of criminal justice, resting firmly on the liberal conception of liberty, which holds that freedom is the absence of coercion (hence its characterization as a negative definition of the metaphysical entity in question), there are allowed numerous justifications and excuses negating mens rea– that is, the general intent to break the law, which includes to some extent not only purposeful action, but acting with knowledge of the outcome, negligence (crimes of omission), and recklessness. Self-defense and defense of others, necessity, duress, mistake, provocation, insanity – these are some of the justification and excuses available to a person who seeks to escape punishment. For if the guilty mind requires that individuals have the ability to make reasonable decisions about right and wrong and to choose between alternatives of conduct, then the defense must show that the individual either did not have the ability to know right from wrong or the freedom to choose the blameless course of action.

Authorities should not – if justice is to be had – hold me to account for robbing a bank if my wife and children are being held hostage and threatened with death by the real bank robbers who drafted me for their conspiracy; for I would not have robbed a bank otherwise. And, certainly, there is a sense in which we feel we know that our actions are the result of choices we make (although we sometimes have to admit we do not know why we do what do) – or that at least we believe they should be. Most of us stand with the prison chaplain of Burgess’ novel in his desire that people choose good over evil.

On the other hand, there is something odd about the language we use to talk about freedom in the positive sense. Such concepts as self-control, self-directedness, self-discipline, and self-actualization assume causal language. Our actions are controlled, directed, disciplined, and so forth, not by others but by our selves. But our actions are not free in the sense that they are undetermined. They are only nototherdetermined.

Of course. If by some random physical event, assuming there are such things, my fist were to lash out at my neighbor, and I was incapable of mustering the power to inhibit this action before it occurred, I could not be held accountable since I did not in any sense intend for this to occur, nor could I stop it. It is precisely because such an action is entirely uncaused that I am blameless for it. As Peter Millican points out, “It’s hard to see how ‘free will’ can be morally relevant if it simply involves an element of randomness.” 

When somebody does something, we ask them: “Why did you do that?” because we assume that some idea or desire or purpose caused them to act in that way. If they say they acted with no cause, that their actions were completely free, then perhaps they mean to say that their action was random, in which case, they are not responsible for it. I can only be responsible for things that I will – that is, some thing that my selfhas done.

And, so, the traditional rhetoric of free will as “that thing that is not determined,” either absolutely or by degrees, becomes problematic. We should perhaps look for an answer to the question German Idealist Georg Hegel asked: Whence the self?What caused that? It is not enough to say a person is free to act, or that she is free to choose; we must ask: Why does that person choose to act in one way and not another? (The entity in social science that corresponds to the will in political-philosophical thought is the self. The assumption is that that the self is in control of voluntary action. The self is associated with conscious life, although it is not thought to go away when we are unconsciousness or in altered states of consciousness, such as dreaming.)

There is something to the Watsonian/Skinnerian view that our behavior is the result of conditioning (classical or operant). For many organisms, their behavioral repertoire is the product of natural selection, dispositions handed down intergenerationally via genetic transmission; but natural history has also left a (variable) space in animals for within-subject acquisition of habits that aid the survival of the individual (and thus the species). As animals, we are natural learning machines. All animal life is, in fact; if it has a nervous system, no matter how few in number its neurons, it can be conditioned to behave in predictable ways under appropriate conditions. These habits, born of experience, are, for some animals, for humans, for example, transmitted through the mechanisms of socialization and enculturation. All the ways in which the habituation of learned behavior is set within the organism in complex and subtle, but it happens. In so many ways, we become who we are. We do not unfold into our present selves.

Perhaps in this regard we are unique. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes in Fear of Freedom:

From the beginning of his existence, man is confronted with the choice between different courses of action. In the animal there is an uninterrupted chain of reactions starting with a stimulus, like hunger, and ending with a more or less strictly determined course of action, which does away with the tension created by the stimulus. In man, that chain is interrupted. The stimulus is there but the kind of satisfaction is “open,” that is, he must choose between different courses of action. Instead of a predetermined instinctive action, man has to weigh possible courses of action in his mind; he starts to think. He changes his role towards nature from that of purely passive adaptation to an active one: he produces.”

However, there is considerable evidence that even in a creature such as us, unique in reflective awareness, symbolic interaction, and creative action, the choices we feel we consciously make are actually the result of habituation. Decision making, and, more broadly cognitive processing, occurs not as a conscious activity, at least not in their initiation, but rather occur at the level of preconsciousness, with the conscious mind becoming aware of the choices the preconscious mind is making.

Max Velmans, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of London: “We commonly experience wishes, desires, decisions to act, or not to act, and take it for granted that it is the conscious experiences themselves that exercise control over our consequent acts.” As MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, in summarizing this area of research, noted in a recent discussion with physicist Lawrence Krauss: David Chalmer’s “hard problem” of consciousness may not be a problem nearly as hard a problem as that of preconsciousness.

When in the mid-1980s Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department of the University of California, San Francisco, found that a person’s brain prepares the person to act not merely before one acts but even before one experiences the wish to act, a tremor was felt in compatibilist households. So much for free will? Libet’s research was questioned because of the brief time delay between brain activity and the conscious decision. Sure, awareness of the decision follows the brain activity that gives rise to the decision, but it soon follows. However, John-Dylan Haynes and associates, working at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, found that brain activity predicts – up to seven seconds ahead of time – how a person is going to decide.

What does this say about responsibility? Max Velmans has wondered, “I feel responsible for my voluntary acts and am likely to be held responsible for them by the courts,” Velmans writes. “But, if my conscious self is not responsible for my acts, and if the act is determined by preconscious processing, can’t I plead that I could not have chosen to do otherwise as the acts were controlled by my preconscious brain?”

Perhaps we should expect Velmans to work on impulse control. After all, Libet argues that “that the volitional process is merely initiated unconsciously.” There is still “an opportunity for the conscious will to control the outcome of the volitional process by blocking or ‘vetoing’ the process.” But this poses its own problem. “Why doesn’t the veto decision have its own unconscious antecedents?” Velmans asks. “If the veto were developed by preceding unconscious processes, that would eliminate conscious free will as the agent for the veto decision.” This problem recalls more the relatively closed intrapsychic struggle of Sigmund Freud’s “Id” and “Ego” than it does the more open play of George Herbert Mead’s “I” and “me.” 

Indeed, how can we suppose the preexistence of a thought which requires a brain to produce it? The causal linkage seems rather backwards when the thought that tells the brain to tell the body to act in this or that way precedes the activity of the machinery that makes the thought possible. As Sam Harris put it, “We can’t think thoughts before we think them, because that would imply that we think thoughts before we think them.” I don’t like the idea that I am not the author or my own thoughts. But then, I am the author of my thoughts. Obviously.

So, then, what do we mean by the will? It can be thought of as a sense of presence, that is the organism being aware of itself and its capacity to act, to affect things. The will, if you like, can be thought of as the puppeteer. One may sense her free will as the feeling or the experience “of making uncaused, uncompelled choices, or initiating uncaused action.” This experience or feeling (and we put it this way because our personal understanding of it is through introspection of the phenomenal) is usefully stated in this form: “free will” is “the feeling that, given the same circumstances, I could have done otherwise than that which I did in fact do [or] that alternative courses of action are open to me at any given moment and that the future is not fated.” It is, perhaps, in this sense that free will and determinism seem so oppositional.

 But there is a problem with the theory derived from this experience or feeling. If “free will” is “the belief that acts of free will are caused by inner mental states of an agent but not by material changes in the brain and not by external stimuli,” then the cause of action becomes completely mystified – granted from the point of view of materialism. For the classic understanding of “free will” is summed up by the following statements: “Free will” “is free in the sense of not being caused or determined by anything else.” “Free will” “is independent of antecedent physiological, neurological, psychological, and environmental conditions.” “Acts of free will are… uncaused events, such as uncaused assents, dissents, choices, decisions.”

Here we enter the realm of indeterminism, which has two aspects: either the epistemological, that is the observation that we lack sufficient information to determine causal relationships in their totality, or the ontological, involving either real randomness or chance, or an entity we cannot define or of which we cannot even conceive, in which case, like the concept of “god,” “free will” is not a cognitively meaningful construction.

I don’t have the answer to this problem. But I recognize it is a problem. I can begin to see that the metaphysics of free will had better give way to the scientific theorization of the self if the humanists is to appeal to freedom and not vanquish it. If we hold individuals accountable for free actions, and those actions require a cause (since random events are nobody’s responsibility), then a scientific definition of freedom might usefully derive from concrete materialist understanding of human behavior rather than being derived from a metaphysical view of things.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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