Determinism 7 – What Do We Do When We Do Something?

[This is a part of series of posts on free will and determinism. It starts here. The immediately preceding post is here.]

So the search is on for the mechanism that creates the experience of exercising free will in a determinist universe populated by predetermined creatures.

That elusive mechanism would have to be such that it could account for a number of seemingly contradictory features:

  1. It would have to be involved in all our actions.
  2. It would have to fit with the determinist sequence of causes and effects.
  3. But at the same time it would also have to be such that – from the inner perspective of a human being with a bit of cognitive bias – it could feel like freely choosing and willing to do or think things.
  4. It would further have to be of a nature that it could explain events when we appear not to be in full control of our actions, like when our actions are driven by an addiction or phobia.
  5. At the same time it would have to be able to explain when we feel fully in control.

I believe that there is such a mechanism. I would argue that it is the relatively unglamorous process of taking actions based on reasons. There is nothing overly complex about taking actions for reasons. It’s as simple as, for example, feeling thirsty, and therefore drinking from the glass of water before me. Or I see something that could be dangerous to me, so I run away. Feeling thirsty and the presence of a glass of water are reasons for me to drink. Perceiving a danger to me is a reason for me to run.

Let’s see then whether it has the features we set out:

  1. Reasoning and then acting on reasons is a feature of all our actions. It is important here to recognise that even acting on bad or faulty reasons is still acting for reasons. So I may be thirsty and might see the presence of a glass of water as a reason to drink from it. The fact that it was gin instead of water doesn’t mean that I didn’t act on a reason. Or I may be acting under the influence of paranoid delusions, but I still act on reasons when I do so. Equally, we don’t need to be particularly conscious of the reasons we’re acting on. The reasons that motivate us to do certain things might be very different from the reasons we would give if asked to justify what we did.
  2. Does it fit with the determinist sequence of cause and effect? I would argue that there is a good fit. We perceive a reason (cause), we act on it (effect). When we take actions based on reasons, all the relevant factors are given in advance. These are factors about us as people who take actions (factors about what kind of reason for action we are particularly aware of, or about the kinds of actions we are able to take) but also factors about the world (the presence of reasons).
  3. Could it give rise to a feeling of acting based on free will, especially with a bit of cognitive bias mixed in? Yes. The fact that we can look for, investigate, mull over, in some situations weigh up against each other and act on only one out of several reasons that present themselves, certainly could give us the impression that we are very active in this process. If we were to de-emphasise in our mind the fact that everything about us and everything about the reasons that present themselves is already given in such a way that it drives us towards an action, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are acting on the basis of free will.
  4. Can it explain the situations where we are not in full control of ourselves, such as when we’re acting based on addiction, phobia or auto-pilot. Yes, it can. The addiction and the phobia generate their own special sensitivity to certain reasons for action. In giving in to an addictive impulse to eat, drink, smoke, consume whatever substance it is, we are still acting on reasons, though they may be bad reasons. Even when we are acting on auto-pilot, we are acting on reasons (e. g. the reason “I’m doing this because this is what I always do”). As we said before, we don’t even have to be fully aware of the reasons for our actions.
  5. Does it equally account for times when we feel fully in control of what we do? Again I would say that it does. Clearly there are times when we actively run through an intense process of reasoning before we act. We weigh up pros and cons and eventually come to a conclusion. We would expect this to feel different from times when we are not even fully aware of the reasons we are acting on. Again, a bit of cognitive bias could easily make us mistake the heat, the inner back-and-forth, and the mental energy of a process when we compare different reasons as an achievement of ours when it ends in resolution. But in fact all the reasons and all our sensitivities to reasons or propensities to act on them are already given in advance.

The interplay between our rationality (in the sense of our ability to perceive and act on reasons) and the world in which reasons occur is the key mechanism that drives the actions of human beings in a determinist universe while also giving rise to a perception that we are exercising free will.




I'd love to know what you think about this!