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Free will and the construction of options

Authors: Chandra Sripada,

Publish Date: 2016/02/26
Volume: 173, Issue:11, Pages: 2913-2933
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What are the distinctive psychological features that explain why humans are free, but many other creatures, such as simple animals, are not? It is natural to think that the answer has something to do with unique human capacities for decision-making. Philosophical discussions of how decision-making works, however, are tellingly incomplete. In particular, these discussions invariably presuppose an agent who has a mentally represented set of options already fully in hand. The emphasis is largely on the selective processes that identify the options most worth doing and then execute them. But where do mentally represented sets of options come from in the first place? Once we focus on this constructive aspect of decision-making, an important fact becomes apparent: While the option sets of simpler animals are sharply limited, humans have a number of striking psychological powers—including remarkable powers of prospection and creativity—that enable them to construct option sets of unparalleled size and diversity. As a result, humans can express themselves in countless ways. This latitude for self-expression is, I argue, the distinctive feature that explains why humans are free.Is free will possible at all, either in a deterministic world or an indeterministic one? This is what we might call the existence question of free will, and it has been the focus of most philosophical discussion. In this essay, I assume a non-skeptical answer to this question, i.e., I assume that free will exists and that unimpaired adult humans have it. I instead address an importantly distinct comparative question: What are the distinctive psychological features that explain why humans, but not other creatures, such as simple animals, are free?One might think that any account that provides a satisfying answer to the first question will surely also address the second. But this is not so. My focus in this essay is on certain influential compatibilist theories of free will that do provide a plausible (albeit controversial) answer to the existence question but leave the comparative question largely unaddressed.One of the compatibilist views I have in mind is that of classical compatibilists who say free will requires the ability to do otherwise. They typically analyze this ability in terms of satisfying certain counterfactual conditionals. Very roughly, were the agent’s desires, choices, or assessments of reasons to be different than they actually are, she would do otherwise. Another kind of compatibilist view says freedom requires a certain sort of control. Standard analyses of control, however, turn out to be notably similar. An agent has the relevant form of control if the mechanism that issues in her action satisfies a requirement along the following lines: Across a suitable number of possible worlds in which there is sufficient reason to do otherwise, the mechanism recognizes the reason to do otherwise in that world and does otherwise.1As I see it, one way to capture what these compatibilist accounts have in common is that they say that to be free, one’s actions must stand in the right sort of dependence relation with respect to certain important agential features. The precise nature of the dependence relation differs across views,2 and the relevant agential features differ too (desires, decisions, the agent’s reasons, etc.). While these differences are important, I want to put them aside. Going forward, I will refer to the common condition for freedom shared across these compatibilist accounts, i.e., the condition characterized in terms of this dependence relation, as a “control/could have done otherwise” condition.3Importantly, these compatibilist theories that rely primarily on a control/could have done otherwise condition—while they do tell us something quite informative about the existence question—leave the comparative question largely unaddressed.4 We can see this point more clearly if we reflect on the psychological capacities that are involved in enabling agents to make decisions. It is useful to divide these into two types. The first type consists of constructive processes that enable an agent to build an option set. This is a mentally represented set5 of various candidate action plans and their anticipated outcomes. The second type consists of selective processes. Given an option set, these enable an agent to assign evaluative weights to the elements of this set. I leave it open exactly how these evaluative weights are assigned—this might involve integrating information about probabilities, utilities, the agent’s desires, reasons, and perhaps other sorts of information or considerations as well. When the evaluative weights have been assigned, whichever action plan in the option set receives most weight is next selected for execution.Notice that the compatibilist theories under consideration are primarily concerned with the selective component of decision-making. They are primarily interested in how we can make sense of the unconstrained operation these selective processes in a deterministic world. Their chief insight is that even if determinism is true, the dependence relation at the heart of control/could have done otherwise views can nonetheless be satisfied. This insight is naturally recast using the language of selective processes: When an agent possesses selective processes that are functioning properly—when these processes are “healthy” and unimpeded by environmental or psychic obstacles—then it follows that her actions will depend in the right sort of way on her assignment of evaluative weights, thus satisfying the control/could have done otherwise condition. On the other hand, consider compulsives or addicts battling irresistible urges. These agents’ selective processes are compromised; they are insensitive to the evaluative weights that are assigned. Thus, the dependence relation at the heart of the control/could have done otherwise condition fails to hold.One serious problem for these compatibilist views, however, is that possessing selective processes, even fairly sophisticated ones, doesn’t seem to be all that special or unique; such processes are in fact quite widespread in the animal world. Many creatures, such as birds, rabbits, and even honeybees, mentally represent candidate actions, e.g., continue to forage in this patch versus move on to the next patch. They assign evaluative weights to actions intelligently and accurately based on their current needs, expected costs and benefits, etc. Their actions in turn reliably depend on the evaluative weights so assigned; were these evaluative weights assigned differently, a different action would ensue.6 These creatures would thus seem to satisfy the dependence relation at the heart of control/could have done otherwise views, just as humans do. According to these compatibilist views, then, there is no reason to suppose a rabbit that moves its leg is any bit less free than a man who moves his hand.7 It is prima facie problematic for a theory of free will that it identifies the basis for freedom in a condition that holds just the same in man and rabbit.



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