Are we always free to choose?

A conversation about free will and moral responsability with Eddy Nahmias, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Georgia State University. 

by Alessandra Faccini

Philosophy 23 February 2023

Zen monks practice a meditation exercise: they form a circle, and one by one, ask to speak. They must abide by a single condition: they can only say things that “make their voices tremble” as they speak. One might even argue that simply telling the truth is enough because the truth always makes one tremble. One issue on which the constraint of truthfulness could have dramatic implications is that of free will. Indeed, over the past few decades, we have witnessed a growing wave of skepticism due to the progress made in the field of neuroscience and behavior. Despite common perceptions and experiences, we are not as free as we think we are. This new and emerging truth threatens our sense of self, our personal worth, and the strengthening of our collective moral responsibility. But is this the only way to examine the free will debate? We discussed this with Eddy Nahmias, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Georgia State University. His research is devoted to studying human agency: what it is, how it is possible, and how it fits with scientific accounts of human nature. Most of his work focuses on debates about free will and moral responsibility. Over the years, he has developed a naturalistic theory of free will. He is also one of the most prominent proponents of the so-called “compatibilist” position, according to which determinism and free will are compatible. 


1. Throughout human history, socially shared beliefs have often become mere illusions; just think of the geocentric model or the myth of white racial supremacy. The revolutionary significance that comes from unmasking the illusion of free will is radically devastating: it challenges our notion of “human being.” In your opinion, what are the most relevant implications of the debate on free will, in view of a possible redefinition of the concept of “human being”? 

Like many of my answers, everything will depend on how we define free will. I agree with the existentialists that free will is an essential capacity for human beings, but what it actually implies is a matter of great debate. To me, free will is something possible in a universe governed by the laws of nature. However, I do think that free will in humans involves much more advanced capabilities than in any other animal and certainly more than in any artificial intelligence we have created so far. This is mainly because humans have capacities for imagination that other creatures don’t have. The brain is the most remarkable thing in the universe, and it allows this power to imagine future alternatives that don’t exist yet. However, when we weigh our alternatives according to our own values and choosing in light of them, we often act against our own best interests. We often act weak-willed. We are often constrained by the laws of our society and the laws of physics. We can’t fly, but we have the power to shape our future. I like the examples you gave of unmasking illusions because they both illustrate an important point about the free will debate. Take the illusion of white supremacy: the popular notion of biological races is an illusion. There’s certainly not a particular race that is better than all the rest. Proving that notion wrong is morally good because it creates more harmony in the world. 

On the other hand, proving that the Earth is not the center of the universe didn’t make us morally better. When it comes to free will, some people treat it as just a metaphysical or scientific concept, like where the Earth is. But most people recognize that free will is essentially tied to what we consider ourselves to be as moral beings. This leads to huge debates about what would happen if we discovered that free will is an illusion. I think it would be good for us to know what’s true. But I also believe that this revolution will be like the Copernican revolution, which we, and even the Church, have come to accept and understand. Likewise, through each generation, we are beginning to accept that we are our brains and that they are responsible for all the remarkable things we thought our minds or souls should be doing, such as our experience of our conscious selves, our power of imagination, and our self-control to the extent that we have it. Once we learn this, I think we’ll come to accept it, and it won’t be as terrifying a revolution as some people portray it to be. 


2. Whenever you deal with such a complex and stratified issue, the risk is getting lost. What are the “reference axes” that you would suggest to navigate this “mare magnum”? 

Traditionally, the axis of the debate has been: “Could we have free will if determinism is true?” or perhaps “Could we have free will if physicalism or naturalism is true?”. If we think of it as a metaphysical debate, then this is a good axis to guide us. I believe we can have free will even if we’re part of the natural universe, even if it turns out to be deterministic, because we are still a crucial part of the causal nexus. Using the ocean metaphor, our brains can, to some extent, steer in which direction the ship goes, not as if we are outside of the ocean but as part of it. There’s another debate, which is the one about moral responsibility, and I think its main axis is: “Do we have the type of free will that is defined as the control we need to be morally responsible and specifically the type of control we would need to deserve punishment?”. Many people think the metaphysical and moral axes are the same, while others believe they are separate, and the concepts diverge, depending on which debate you’re interested in. 


3. In light of neuroscience findings, is there by chance a risk that philosophical discourse becomes obsolete? 

I view philosophy as an all-encompassing discipline that seeks to understand how all of our questions are connected. When questions are clarified in a way that science can answer, science develops and begins to answer those questions. In the case of the free will debate, I think we are still far from finding an acceptable, agreed-upon answer to what free will is. I believe the scientists who talk about it are often confused about how to define it appropriately. I think when we’ll come to see what con- cepts like responsibility, punishment, power, and control mean, we’ll be in a better position to turn to scientists and say, “OK, we’ve come to agree on what it means to control ourselves in a way that we can be held accountable. How much of that control do we have?”, and then they can ideally go and measure it. 


4 What is your reaction when “compatibilist” positions like yours are defined by other scholars as “outrageous” or “less exciting”? 

I would say it’s the exact opposite in both cases. First, it’s not outrageous because I and many other experimental philosophers and psychologists have been trying to understand what ordinary people mean by free will. I think there is plenty of evidence that many people are either compatibilists or don’t really have a developed metaphysical theory of free will. They see it as the type of control we need to govern our own lives and be accountable. Some people feel it’s less exciting because they think: “Oh, that just means sometimes you get to do what you want. And of course, we have that power.” But if we define free will in the more interesting way that I’ve outlined, as these relatively complicated powers of imagination and self-control, well, then it’s not unexciting at all. It opens up those scientific questions to study it and the degrees to which humans— and different individuals—have it or lack it. 


5 Did you consider unconscious elements while developing your thesis on free will? In the decision-making process, the unconscious plays a significant role, and not just our conscious thinking. What does this mean from the “compatibilist” perspective? 

We should be worrying about the degree to which our decisions are caused by unconscious processes beyond our control and that conflict with what we consciously believe. There are causes of our behavior we’re not aware of, and if we were aware of them, we would think they are not what we want to cause our behavior. For instance, we are much more susceptible to authority and unconscious social group pressures than we would like to believe. In my opinion, that is absolutely the most significant and relevant threat to free will. And the question becomes, to what degree are we, as a species and individually, susceptible to these processes? How can we best overcome the non-conscious processes that we don’t want to influence us? Freud thought it possible through psychotherapy. But now we have other things like cognitive-behavioral therapy. We have drugs that might help people become freer in the sense of being more able to control their behavior in light of their own conscious goals. We might be able to enhance our free will. 


6 The most dramatic implication in the refutation of free will is the question of moral responsibility. But, to guarantee the perpetration of the species and avoid a general existential catastrophe, we should persuade ourselves that we are genuinely free to choose.

This scenario reminds me of the condition of the individual in classical tragedy, where people are held responsible for what is intended to happen to them: that’s the case of Sophocles’ Oedipus, a subject only apparently free, who undergoes the blindness of Tyche and the inexorability of the punishment that haunts him from birth. And this is where the tragic aspect of the story is: the rationalistic culture clashes with the awareness of the decision-making limits of the individual, who is never free from external constraints. In your opinion, is there something we can learn from this story? 

The story of Oedipus is interesting because it introduces the idea of fate by the gods. I use it to contrast the problem of determinism. If someone like Oedipus is destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother, he’s going to do that regardless of his choices. In fact, every choice he makes to attempt to avoid that fate ultimately leads to that fate. That’s not how determinism works: determinism doesn’t mean that certain outcomes will occur no matter what we choose. Quite the opposite: it means that what we choose is determined by the past, but what we choose determines the future. So there is a big difference between destiny and determinism. But what we are interested in is when is it appropriate to hold people accountable so that we can punish them if they deserve punishment or praise them if they deserve praise, and to what extent? The way to think about this is just how Daniel Dennett describes it in terms of sports. When we make the rules of soccer or any other game, the rules are there to make the game interesting and make the game what it is. The best definition of a game or a sport that I’ve seen is one that Bernard Suits came up with, which is that we create games or sports so that we can make a goal difficult to achieve. For example, we make soccer such that we can’t use our hands because it’s more interesting and difficult to not use our hands, making the game what it is. Likewise, in our society, the rules of punishment and reward are structured in a forward-looking way to make society work better. But once the rules are in place, we enforce them in a backward-looking way based on what people deserve. If a player were to use their hands in soccer, it might create the greatest overall happiness—see Maradona’s “hand of God”. But that’s not how we enforce the rules. We enforce the rules based on whether the person freely violated them. So if someone intentionally uses their hand, they break the rules, whether it makes the game more fun or more interesting, and they deserve to be punished with a free kick or a red card. Similarly, if someone knowingly breaks the rules of society, they deserve to be punished. For me, this means they deserve to be communicated with in a manner that tells them, “you broke the rules, you need to apologize and change your behavior.” 


7 One of the most frequent reactions to certain theses concerning the free will issue is the emergence of a sense of radical bewilderment: that’s because we question something that has intimately to do with the nature of human existence. I don’t think everyone has Nietzschean Übermesch’s ability. Still, I wonder what could be the basis for constructing a new morality that takes into account what we have addressed so far? Or do you think that the problem is that “people hate the idea that they aren’t agents who can make free choices,” as Jerry Coyne puts it? 

Jerry Coyne and other “willusionists” assume that everybody thinks free will requires us to be nonphysical souls or minds that can make free choices from outside the natural world or create ourselves from scratch. The two questions are: one, do we actually believe that we have those impossible abilities? And two, do we need those impossible abilities to have some sort of moral system, to have punishment, to blame? And my answer to both questions is no, but with warnings. I don’t think that we have magical abilities to create ourselves from scratch or even to be nonphysical souls. I believe that any moral idea that demands such impossibility should be overturned (such as eternal punishment in hell). By doing so, we would not undermine our moral systems in the radical ways Jerry Coyne might believe. Instead, I think that if we get a more scientifically informed notion of free will, we would get to a stage where we can get better answers about when and to what extent people deserve to be communicated with in such a way that they understand that they’ve done wrong and have to fix what they’ve done.