Davies’ Really Dangerous Idea

An analysis of Paul Davies’ worry about free will in which two types of freedom are described, one supernatural and one natural.  Only one, it turns out, is necessary for all we hold near and dear.  And the other is widely discounted by scientists and philosophers developing a naturalistic view of ourselves.  Thanks to Kip Werking who pointed out some errors in the first iteration of this essay.

Even very smart people can get tangled up in the perennial problem of human freedom, and a good example is astrophysicist Paul Davies, writing in the September/October issue of Foreign Policy. One of the world’s most dangerous ideas, he says, is the scientific and philosophical assault on free will. Why dangerous? Because: “Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today’s scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar – apparently without thinking about what might replace it.”

So there’s something very serious at stake here, and no doubt Davies’ warning resonates with those who are fearful of neuroscience’s march into the mind, and the recent unraveling of the human genome. But there are several problems with his commentary, the first of which is that he doesn’t clearly define what he means by free will. He equivocates between two types of freedom, one quite plausible, and one clearly not.

To start, let’s try to understand what these thoughtless scientists and philosophers deny we have. Here’s Davies’ first crack at specifying the freedom that’s threatened:

"What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all) this agent has a measure of choice and control over her and his actions. From this simple model of human agency flow the familiar notions of responsibility, guilt, blame, and credit. The law, for example, makes a clear distinction between a criminal act carried out by a person under hypnosis or while sleepwalking, and a crime committed in a state of normal awareness with full knowledge of the consequences."

Note that this folk psychological understanding of freedom involves no claims about determinism, indeterminism, or any sort of mysterious “agent causation.” It just says that conscious persons are normally in control of their actions and can foresee consequences, and that the law requires making a distinction between persons who are thus in control and those who aren’t. The former we can justly hold responsible and accountable as a way of getting them to toe the line, the latter we can’t.

Fair enough. So what’s the problem? Do philosophers and scientists really deny that we have this sort of freedom? No, to my knowledge none of them do, and there’s no reason they should, since the common sense distinction drawn in this folk psychological picture is well-founded and essential for our moral and legal practices.

But watch. As Davies continues in his next paragraph, he starts talking about a very different sort of metaphysical freedom, which scientists and philosophers do indeed doubt:

“All this [folk psychology] may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries – and the attack is gathering speed. ‘All theory is against the freedom of the will,’ wrote British critic Samuel Johnson. In the 1940’s, Oxford University philosophy Professor Gilbert Ryle coined the derisory expression ‘the ghost in the machine’ for the widespread assumption that brains are occupied by immaterial selves that somehow control the activities of our neurons. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett now refers to the ‘fragile myth’ of ‘spectral puppeteers’ inside our heads.”

What Davies now says is under attack isn’t the plausible folk psychological picture he first painted, the one that simply distinguishes normal people from sleepwalkers and the insane. No, it’s the dualistic notion that we are bodies inhabited by immaterial selves or souls, things that somehow control our brains. And he’s right that philosophers and scientists are highly skeptical of such a notion. How could they not be, since there’s no good evidence that such things exist?

Davies thus equivocates on the sense of freedom he says is at stake in the momentous debate about free will. On the one hand, there’s the metaphysical, mysterious sort of soul-based freedom which many philosophers, including Dennett, love to debunk, and that a shrinking minority try to defend.[1] Call this type 1 freedom. On the other hand, there’s the everyday sort of freedom which no one denies: the capacity to act according to my considered, conscious intentions, mindful of consequences. Call this type 2 freedom. Which sort of freedom should we worry about not having?

Well, since scientists and philosophers largely deny we have type 1 freedom, we might worry about not having it, if we thought it was the necessary basis for the law and human dignity. On the other hand, since no one disputes the existence of type 2 freedom, we needn’t worry about not having it. So the freedom at stake, to clarify Davies’ concern, is the type 1 freedom of the soul. But why should Davies and the rest of us be worried about not having it? Is it really the basis of anything important?

Well, many people suppose so, including Davies. After all, he thinks the possibility we don’t have this sort of freedom - the basis for free will - is among the world’s most dangerous ideas. He continues by describing what he thinks is the regrettable, but ultimately well-founded scientific skepticism about type 1 freedom:

“Physicists often fire the opening salvo against free will. In the classical Newtonian scheme, the universe is a gigantic clockwork mechanism, slavishly unfolding according to deterministic laws. How then does a free agent act? There is simply no room in this causally closed system for an immaterial mind to bend the paths of atoms without coming into conflict with physical law. Nor does the famed indeterminacy of quantum mechanics help minds to gain purchase on the material world. Quantum uncertainty cannot create freedom. Genuine freedom requires that our wills determine our actions reliably.”

This makes clear the sort of type 1 freedom Davies thinks we must have for free will: we must not be merely part of the unfolding physical clockwork. We must have immaterial minds, with the power to control behavior reliably without the mind being fully determined or caused by factors external to itself. Such freedom is at bottom dualistic - we are of two categorically different natures, mental and physical - and it sets up the mind as causally privileged over the rest of nature: as non-physical mental agents, we get to cause without being fully caused ourselves; we are in effect little gods. From a scientific perspective, such a picture is simply incoherent. Human beings are not causal exceptions to nature. The mind is simply what the physical brain does, and the person is fully a function of biological and social conditions that unfold in conformity with the laws of physics.

Davies recognizes this, saying that “These ideas [that the mind is fully determined by evolution and culture] are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them.” He’s therefore in a serious bind, since as a scientist he knows he can’t plausibly defend the type 1 freedom he thinks necessary for human dignity, law, and morality. And without a universal belief in such freedom, he imagines all sorts of nasty consequences follow, namely

“…an anything goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide…[P]eople convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don’t believe in free will.”

Scary stuff. But is this scenario realistic? There are two questions: First, is the existence of type 1 freedom the necessary basis for all we hold near and dear? Second, if it doesn’t exist, is belief in type 1 freedom necessary for all we hold near and dear, as Davies seems to think?

Regarding the first question, we’ve seen that one important common sense picture of moral responsibility – that we’re people who act more or less rationally, who anticipate the consequences of our actions, and therefore who are potentially sensitive to moral norms and sanctions – isn’t threatened by science. We can be, and usually are, rational, sane, cognizant, and therefore morally accountable even though we might be fully determined creatures. Many philosophers and writers, including myself, are making the case that moral responsibility is perfectly compatible with not having type 1 freedom. See, for instance, Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (chapter 10) and the materials at www.naturalism.org.

So Davies is wrong to say that “The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place.” The current legal and ethical framework survives quite nicely without type 1 freedom, since it’s only type 2 freedom that’s required to make it work.[2] And consider: if we actually had the type 1 freedom to be uncaused or uninfluenced in some respect, we’d be ultimately uncontrollable by law and ethics. Type 1 freedom, therefore, isn’t necessary for morality, and in fact would be a positive hindrance. As Stanley Fish once put it about free speech: it doesn’t exist, and a good thing, too.

But what about belief in type 1 freedom? Davies says that “if …free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining.” Here he joins Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky in recommending free will illusionism, the idea that, in order to keep morality and dignity intact, we must live in either a literal or practical state of denial about the scientific facts about human nature. But of course maintaining willful disbelief is difficult, if not impossible. Certainly Davies himself, many philosophers and scientists, and anyone who’s appreciated the logical and empirical absurdities of type 1 freedom cannot avail themselves of such mental compartmentalization. Is he recommending that we keep the rest of the world in the dark, since such knowledge is simply too dangerous? If so, he should not be publishing incendiary articles that let the cat out of the bag.

But of course we can question the notion that belief in an illusory type 1 freedom is necessary for anything. If Davies doesn’t believe in it, why isn’t he running amok, or passively conforming to an “exploitative social or political system”? Why not me? Why not a host of philosophers and an increasing number of laity who’ve disabused themselves of this fiction? There must be some alternative route to good behavior and political activism. And indeed there is. Just as we don’t need to believe in god to be good or resist oppression, we don’t need the fiction of type 1 freedom. Loving ourselves, families, friends and (some) neighbors as we can’t help but do, and knowing we will be held morally and legally accountable if we act badly - these are the core basis for right action, are they not? If this uncomplicated system works for us, why not the masses? To suppose that it wouldn’t smacks of elitism.

In fact, we might come to understand that the really dangerous idea is Davies’ insistence that we must believe (or pretend we believe) in free will as he defines it, while ignoring or suppressing the science-based truth that we don’t have type 1 freedom. It’s dangerous because the idea that we are little gods, that at bottom we just choose ourselves in some respect independently of genetic and environmental circumstances, arguably helps to motivate such things as ethnic conflict and genocide, to use Davies’ examples. After all, that’s what allows us to deeply blame and resent the “other”: they could have risen above their circumstances and been good people like us if they’d only chosen to using their type 1 freedom. Retribution, retaliation, and revenge all find their footing in the idea that our enemies are not ultimately subject to causes, but are instead self-created in some crucial respect. That way all the blame attaches to them as individuals, and little or none to the conditions that created them, a perfect prescription for inciting conflict.

On the other hand, were we to appreciate that our ideological, ethnic, and religious antagonists are fully caused to believe and act the way they do, then we cannot demonize them in the way often justified by belief in type 1 freedom. They, like us, are functions of a host of conditions and causes, according to science. If we give up belief in Davies’s free will, we would see that had we been in their exact circumstances, we would have been them, holding their beliefs and acting as they do. This insight can help undo the rigid us-versus-them polarization that’s at the root of so much violence. So, far from being a dangerous idea, undermining free will as Davies defines it is exactly what the doctor ordered for bringing the world to its senses.

Not that this will happen any time soon, partially because apologists for type 1 freedom do so much to retard appreciation of the real, science-based alternative to imagining we are nature’s chosen exceptions to causality. That’s the unfortunate thing about Davies’ thesis: it says we can’t live with the scientific truth about ourselves, when in fact seeing that truth is key to countering the arrogance, the self-righteousness, and the unforgiving vengeance and brutality justified by the supernatural supposition that we and our opponents are self-caused selves. If we can drop the idea that we humans are metaphysically special, and see that morality, dignity, and the law needs only the type 2, natural freedom of being rational agents, then we’ll be in a position to appreciate the ethical significance of naturalism: I see my enemy as myself, since there but for circumstances go I.

TWC, September 2004

[1] Among those defending type 1 freedom (although they wouldn't describe it as "soul-based") are University of Georgia philosopher Randolph Clarke (Libertarian Accounts of Free Will), Indiana University philosopher Timothy O'Connor (Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will) and New South Wales Supreme Court judge David Hodgson (“A plain person’s free will,” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, critiqued here).

[2] Although it remains intact, the framework might change significantly in some respects should we relinquish Davies' conception of free will. For instance, since belief in type 1 freedom motivates retributive punishment and is often used to justify economic inequality, criminal justice practices and social policies might change as this belief is abandoned. See for instance “Against Retribution” and the Criminal Justice and Policy pages.