The Libet experiments can reinvigorate the free-will debate—now deadlocked and dull—if applied to clarify concepts, not merely refute opponents. In the current standoff, almost every philosopher and scientist rejects libertarian free will, the doctrine that willful acts produce physically unpredictable outcomes, but the scholarly majority wants its physicalism and its free will too. This compatibilist maneuver to have both turns the question of free will’s existence into a jejune debate about words; but unfortunately, free will’s inherent ineffability condemns determinists to rejecting what they can’t define. These essays fill the gap.
Compatibilists equate the exercise of free will with voluntary behavior, as when I move my arm because that’s what I want to do. According to the desiccated compatibilist definitions, free will is comprised of the ability to behave voluntarily, notwithstanding that volition is cortical matter physically causing chemical events. Although it’s hard to describe an alternative, this position seems obviously wrong; a science fiction story can quickly show why. Imagine an intelligent species that directly experienced the causal path between brain and arm, as we might experience the causal connection between pain and object causing injury. Such beings would perform the action voluntarily, but would this tempt anyone to call it “free”? Unfortunately, the answer is affirmative. While the thought experiment can allude to the distinction between voluntary and freely willed behavior, a compatibilist would answer the question, “Yes, that is an example of free will.”
Determinists can concede that volition is one meaning of free will but insist on another meaning, origination, the sense that you are your behavior’s source. Although origination separates determinists from libertarians—by the lights of both—compatibilists circumvent the issue by limiting the manifestation of free will to voluntary behavior. That they’ve gotten the better of the argument, despite their evasiveness, must be admitted, because origination is nebulous, unsuited for creating a clear counterpoint to volition. Free will, the agent’s contribution to the event, the umpf we give an act seemingly making it occur, seems ineffable except by the vaguest allusion. Intuitively, we feel we will freely in a sense distinct from mere volition—most everyone thinks they know this other free will—but unsupported mass intuitions truly deserve little respect.
My trick defines the experience of free will by its cause instead of its experiential quality, much as the ineffable red patch observable in your mind’s eye can be defined as the physical reception of an object reflecting certain long light waves. With a difference. If we define the free-will experience by its cause—as we can define the sensation red by its external cause—then, if the definition posits a demonstrably nonexistent entity, it undermines the doctrine of free will, including its compatibilist version.
Recall that Libet found that subjects perceived the act of deciding, the initiating event of the free-will experience, later than the actual decision—this demonstrated neurologically. Determinists see that misplacement of the subjective experience of deciding disposes of libertarian free will. But who believes in libertarian free will? Since they haven’t described the experience of free will, these scholars haven’t refuted compatibilism.
My small contribution is to articulate a definition of free will:
Free will is the (mis)perception that experienced deciding causes behavior.
This project relies on Fritz Heider’s classic psychological experiments as much as on Libet’s neurological studies. Heider showed that despite the abstractness of the concept of cause, temporal precedence and spatial contiguity produce the direct, noninferential perception of causality. (An animated demonstration lets you experience the direct perception of causality.) This sense of a causal connection, resulting from associating perceived decision with act, is the sense of free will.
Attributing the free-will experience to a unique cause frees determinists from the vexation of defining it experientally, since it explains the experience by an invalidating mechanism: if the experience of deciding regularly precedes an act, it will seem its cause. Determinists, therefore, can demonstrate a sense of free will distinct from voluntary control.
Next part: How free will?