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Free Will as an Open Scientific ProblemReview - Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem
by Mark Balaguer
MIT Press, 2010
Review by Markus Schlosser, Ph.D.
Apr 20th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 16)

In this excellent book, Mark Balaguer argues that the problem of free will boils down to an open empirical question about the causal histories of certain neural events. I shall begin with a brief synopsis of the book’s four chapters. In the first, Balaguer presents a formulation of the problem of free will. Roughly, the problem is that both determinism and indeterminism appear to rule out free will. In particular, it seems that indeterminism cannot enhance our freedom in any significant way. Most philosophers would agree that this is indeed the core of the metaphysical problem of free will. The second chapter, however, has many controversial and some surprising claims on offer. Balaguer argues that the nature of free will (the "what-is-free-will question") is irrelevant to the question of whether or not we have free will. The idea is, roughly, that if we knew everything about the nature of human decision-making processes, then we would not learn anything substantially new if we learned what free will is. It is also argued that the question of whether or not free will is compatible with determinism reduces to the what-is-free-will question. Here Balaguer argues that all standard compatibilist accounts of freedom are obviously compatible with determinism, and that the only controversial question about compatibilism is therefore whether any compatibilist account provides an account of free will (and not just "freedom"). Further, it is argued that the central metaphysical issue is the question of which kinds of freedom we possess, and that this question reduces to the question of whether or not we have libertarian free will. In the third chapter, Balaguer proposes a libertarian account of free will. On this view, the central type of free choices are torn choices: more than one course of action appears to be open, the agent sees reason for each option, but he or she does not see any reason that favours one option over the others. In such cases, we just choose. This view is similar to Robert Kane’s event-causal account, but there are some significant differences. According to Balaguer, we have free will if torn choices are authored and controlled by the agent in the uncontroversial sense that they are based on the agent’s reasons, and if the reason-based probabilities match with the actual probabilities of the choice. Balaguer argues that this indeterminism does not diminish the agent’s control, and that the agent has in fact as much control as one could possibly have. This view claims not only that libertarianism is coherent (as most versions of libertarianism are content with). But it says that if torn choices are undetermined in the right way, which is an empirical claim about certain neural events, then we have libertarian free will. The argument of the final chapter says that there are no good arguments for or against determinism. In particular, given current neuroscience and psychology, there are no good arguments for or against the claim that torn choices are realized by neural events that are undetermined in the required way. The overall conclusion is that the problem of free will is a wide open empirical problem.

Many of those claim are, of course, controversial. I shall raise now some of the points that I find questionable. First, I was not convinced by the argument for the claim that the compatibility question reduces to the what-is-free-will question. It is very plausible to think that free will is the ability to do otherwise. If that is correct, then there is a compatibility question that does not reduce to the what-is-free-will question (namely, the question of whether or not the ability to do otherwise is compatible with determinism). Balaguer addresses this objection, and he argues that it only moves the problem a step back, because it requires an analysis of what it is to be able to do otherwise (p. 47). But I think that this will not convince libertarians who think that this notion (of being able to do otherwise) is primitive. Second, in the argument for the claim that the right kind of indeterminism together with reason-based (and event-causal) control provides as much control as we can have (pp. 96-106), Balaguer does not address the fairly obvious objection one would expect from agent-causal libertarians. They will argue that agent-causation provides a kind of control that no event-causal view can provide: control over which one of the alternatives to pursue. Third, Balaguer claims that in cases where the reasons point to one unique action, we should want causal determination by the agent’s reasons (p. 127). No doubt, compatibilists and perhaps some libertarians will agree. But I think that many incompatibilists and libertarians would argue that even "one-way" choices are free only if the choice is made with metaphysical (that is, non-deterministic) freedom. What is needed here is an argument, not just an intuitive claim about what we should want. Forth, Balaguer suggests that the advantage of his libertarianism over compatibilism consists in the fact that it would be very "depressing" if our torn choices were in fact determined (p. 112). Suppose, however, that you see reason for more than one alternative, but no reason that favours one over the others. Would it be depressing to learn that the choice is settled by unconscious or external factors? We assume that the choice is reason-responsive. So, the unconscious and external factors would settle only what you cannot settle by consulting your reasons. Would that be so depressing? More depressing than the kind of randomness inherent to (Balaguer's or Kane's) event-causal libertarianism?

Overall, this is a very good book that has new and interesting claims on offer. Many of them are controversial. But Balaguer has good arguments, and his book should stimulate fruitful discussion. Throughout, the argumentation is dense, but nevertheless clear. I should note that the book contains much less discussion of empirical research than the title might suggest, and that it provides purely philosophical arguments concerning the metaphysical problem of free will (despite its anti-metaphysical conclusion). Nevertheless, I very much recommend this book to everyone with an interest in free will. It is the best book on free will that I have read in a while, and I have benefited greatly from reading it. The dense philosophical argumentation will probably be tough going for non-philosophers and laypersons--but I think it will be worth it.

 

© 2010 Markus Schlosser

 

Markus Schlosser, is a research fellow at the University of Leiden. His main research area is the philosophy of action, and he has published articles and chapters on various issues concerning the metaphysics of agency. Currently, he is working on a philosophical evaluation of empirical claims concerning mental causation and free will.


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