The Freedom to Do Otherwise

Reference Material:
Freedom and Belief by Galen Strawson (2010)
An Essay on Free Will by Peter van Inwagen (1983)

            This post picks up right where its predecessor left off, exploring in more depth what it means to have free will, or to claim to. We’ll start again with the conditional version of the freedom to-do-otherwise conception: you are free to do otherwise if, were you to choose to do otherwise, you would in fact do otherwise. Upon first reading this formulation, it somehow seems too simple. I’m playing chess. It’s my turn. Let’s suppose I have the choice to move either my knight or my bishop. I choose to move my bishop, and go on to in fact move my bishop. Does this make my action free? In one sense, yes. My action is free in the sense that it is preceded by (caused by?) conscious mental activity – my choice. My moving my bishop is not an unconscious, autonomic process like my breathing or heartbeat, nor is it a reflex like coughing or sneezing. It’s much more deliberate and intentional. But is this all we mean by free will? I don’t think so. I don’t think we are only concerned that our actions are free in that they depend on our choices. We, particularly free will skeptics, want to go deeper. At the very least, we want to know whether our choices are free.
            As introduced in the previous post, the conditional to-do-otherwise conception of free will can be restated to try to focus on choice: you are free to choose otherwise if, were you to desire to choose otherwise, you would in fact choose otherwise. The SEP article spells out two objections to this new definition: it struggles to deal with dilemmas where more than one desire is present, and it seems to attribute a kind of freedom to extreme phobics that clearly don’t possess it. My initial reaction is that these objections stick (there are, of course, common replies and counterarguments), but even brushing them aside, I feel there is a deeper issue here. The concern arising with the previous formulation still lingers. I want some fruit. Several options, a peach, an apple, a pear, etc., present themselves. I desire a peach, and then choose the peach. Is my choice free? The response mirrors that above. Yes, the choice is free in the sense that it is motivated by my desire and made in the absence of external constraints. But again, is this what we mean by free will? My answer is the same – it seems not. It seems reasonable to argue that if our choices are made free based on their originating in desires, the conception of free will that we are after, that we want to have, demands that we can also choose our desires. After all, ‘will’ is often synonymous with ‘desire’. A free will would, one assumes, require free desires, and not just desires freely satisfied, but desires freely chosen by their possessor.
            My sense is that this is one point where the conversation starts to diverge, split, and fray. Classical compatibilists (think Locke, Hobbes, etc.) argued that the suggestion above, that having free will requires that we choose our desires, is basically nonsensical (see the SEP article for an elaboration of this point). I take their argument to be something like the following. Our actions are free because they are dependent on our choices (as in the first conditional to-do-otherwise formulation). Our choices are free because they stem from our desires (the second formulation). To analyze further, to require a conception of free will that accounts for the origin of the will itself, is to start down a path of infinite regress: if desires originate in some other mental states, call them x’s, and this fact suffices to make desires free, does free will require an account of how x’s are free? And so on. The force behind this argument seems to come from the intuition that, because further analysis (can we choose our desires? If not, where do they come from?) leads to a kind of absurdity in infinite regress, that analysis must be wrongheaded or, in some sense, unnecessary. Therefore, the analysis should terminate at something like the second conditional formulation, which suffices as a conception of free will. My intuitions pull me in exactly the opposite direction. To me, the fact that a conceptual analysis of free will has led to an explanatory infinite regress is an indication that the concept at the heart of the analysis, free will, is somehow problematic. I’m not alone in this reaction. Galen Strawson’s argument for the impossibility of free will makes use of this same idea – an explanatory search for the locus of control at the heart of the concept of free will (e.g., from action to choice to desire, etc.) ultimately extends beyond anything we have control over, anything we would call us.
            This brings me to a concept that I’ve come to view as central to the free will quagmire, the self. When I reject the second formulation of the conditional analysis, part of what I’m reacting to is something like the following. If my free will consists in my choices being based on my desires, then there is a sense in which the agent doing the willing, me, becomes identified with my desires. I am free because my desires (I) determine my choices. This identification seems to imply a somewhat crude sense of self, that I am my desires. I believe a dislike of this conception of the self partly motivates my rejection of the second conditional formulation as adequately describing free will. I am not coincident with my desires, therefore to be truly free, I must in some sense choose my desires. This issue certainly won’t be settled here, if ever. The philosophy of the self is itself a branch of inquiry. However, as I continue to explore freedom, I will return to the connection between the self and free will, and the central role the concept of the self plays in the free will debate. My tentative conclusion here will be the following. The conditional to-do-otherwise conception of free will has some serious problems (see the reference material). Even ignoring many of these issues, however, the conditional analysis seems to commit to a conception of the self that, in my limited reading, appears objectionable and underexplored.
            An alternative definition of the freedom to do otherwise is the so-called categorical form: you are free to do or choose otherwise at some time if it is possible, holding everything fixed up until that time, for you to do or choose otherwise. At first reading, this definition rings true to me. It seems to capture the ability people claim to have when they say they have free will. In my chess example, what I mean when I say I’m free to move either the bishop or knight is something like the following. Given that everything in the world is the way it is – the positions of pieces on the board, my posture, my current mental state, everything – it is possible that I will move either piece. Said another way, both futures, with either the bishop or the knight having moved, remain open to me in the current moment. I won’t attempt to defend this conception in more detail here – it will be challenged in the next post.