Natural Libertarianism: A New Theory of Free Agency.
By Robert Hanna
You can also read or download a .pdf version of this essay HERE.
The task [of understanding free agency] requires some reflection on the organizational principles of living creatures, for it is only through such reflection … that we can start to understand where the difference really lies between, on the one hand those things that are true agents, and, on the other, mere machines, entities that nothing will ever be up to, however impressive they may be…. I am exceedingly hopeful that the next few years will see the beginnings of a revolution in our conception of the human person, as philosophical and everyday conceptions of the scientific picture of the world are freed from outdated Newtonian ideas and begin to take more note, both of the complexities of science as it really is and of the undeniable fact of our animal nature.[i]
1. Is human free agency really possible in the natural world as correctly described by modern physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience–and if so, how is that really possible?
Or more briefly put, given the truth of modern science, are you really a free agent–and if so, how?
Yes; and here’s how.
2. By free agency, I mean the conjunction of free will and practical agency, which in turn means
(i) that you can choose and do what you want to, or refrain from so choosing or doing, without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces (i.e., free will), and
(ii) that you can self-consciously choose and do what you want to, for reasons, and with deep moral or non-moral responsibility (i.e., practical agency).
And by deep moral or non-moral responsibility for X, I mean
(i) that X is something you chose or did yourself, whose objective moral value flows from and directly attaches to your freely willed choice or action, and
(ii) that deep moral responsibility requires free will — if you weren’t able to choose or do X, without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces, then you couldn’t be deeply morally or non-morally responsible for X.
An example of choice and action with deep moral responsibility would be your deciding to join the Democratic Socialists of America right now, and then voting for the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren ticket in the 2020 US Presidential election.
And an example of choice and action with deep non-moral responsibility would be creating a work of art, as per my latest poetic creation:
To Bee Or Not To Bee
Oh! how I long to see, the inner workings of a bee;
It knows not what it is to be, but only how to be, a bee.
3. The thesis of Natural Determinism says that everything that happens now and in the future is strictly fixed by the laws of nature together with all the actual facts about the past.
And the thesis of Natural Indeterminism says that at least some things and perhaps all things that happen are not strictly fixed by the laws of nature together with all the actual facts about the past, but also happen more or less randomly, according to mathematical laws of probability.
Most contemporary philosophers and scientists, and many non-philosophers too, hold that you are not really free, because they also believe that the truth of modern science entails a thesis I call Natural Mechanism.
Natural mechanism says
(i) that everything that happens is either deterministic, indeterministic, or some mixture of both (say, macroscopically deterministic but microscopically indeterministic at the quantum level), and
(ii) that all the causal and quantitative characteristics of those happenings are not only
(ii.1) strictly fixed by the general causal laws of nature and/or the mathematical laws of probability, especially those laws governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy, together with all the settled facts about the past, especially including the Big Bang,
(ii.2) calculable from those laws and facts on an ideal digital computer.
If Natural Mechanism is true, then you are not really free, because, instead, no matter what you may believe about your own freedom, you are really a deterministic or indeterministic natural automaton, ultimately caused by the Big Bang; so, in effect, you’re essentially only a fancy robot like The Machine Man/false Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis —
or The Terminator in the eponymous 1984 film directed by James Cameron —
or Motoko Kusanagi in Mamoru Morii’s 1995 cyberpunk anime film, Ghost in the Shell —
4. I will now present a new theory of free agency that is neither contrary to modern science nor committed to the thesis of Natural Mechanism, that I call Natural Libertarianism,[ii] and, correspondingly, also provide a new proof for the real possibility of human free agency, by explaining and proving its actual existence.
Two philosophical truths for the price of one!
5. Natural Libertarianism flows from two simple but earth-shattering ideas proposed by Kant in the 18th century, and also from one slightly less simple but still earth-shattering idea proposed by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine in the late 20th century, in his 1997 book,The End of Certainty.
First, action that is perfectly in conformity with a law, is not necessarily entailed or otherwise necessitated by that law (Kant’s earth-shattering idea #1).
Second, real freedom presupposes, in rational human animals, the natural processes specifically characteristic of living organisms; but living organisms are not natural automata, whether deterministic or indeterministic, because they are self-organizing and purposive; hence real freedom is grounded in biological anti-mechanism (Kant’s earth-shattering idea #2).
Third, the correct physics is a non-deterministic interpretation of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (Prigogine’s earth-shattering idea).
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to Prigogine’s earth-shattering idea by using the acronym NDI-NET.
6. Let us suppose, for the purposes of argument, that NDI-NET, as worked out, for example, by Prigogine in The End of Certainty — actually, it should have been called The End of Mechanism — is true, and that all the general causal laws of nature and/or mathematical laws of probability, as formulated by modern science, are also true, under the NDI-NET interpretation.
From these suppositions, taken together with Kant’s two ideas, not only does it not follow that Natural Mechanism is true and that we are really natural automata, it also follows that Natural Mechanism is not true and that we are really not natural automata.
To see this, suppose that everything we choose and do is at least consistent with those general causal natural laws and/or mathematical laws of probability, and that therefore we never violate any of them.
And in particular, suppose that we never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, hence we never violate any of the general causal natural laws and/or mathematical laws of probability governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy.
Nevertheless, it does not follow that whatever we choose and do is entailed or otherwise necessitated by those laws.
This is because, as Kant pointed out, mere conformity of action with laws is not the same as entailment or necessitation by laws.
Indeed, for any general causal law of nature and/or mathematical law of probability whatsoever, no matter how specific it is, together with all the settled natural facts about the past, nevertheless, there is always some physical open texture that is not entailed or necessitated by that law, although it remains perfectly in conformity with the laws.
More precisely, in the wake of the Big Bang, there is always and everywhere some physical open texture that, at various stages of far-from-equilibrium, temporally-unidirectional, complex, self-organizing thermodynamic activity, as studied in NDI-NET, creates targets for ultra-specific, context-sensitive physical activity, for example:
(i) the roiling surface-structures of boiling water,
(ii) the Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction,[iii] plus light excitation,
(iii) the unfolding of weather systems,
(iv) the development of viruses,
(v) organismic activity including the purposive lives of simple organisms, plants, and animals,
(vi) the feelings, desires, perceptions, and thoughts of conscious animals, and above all,
(vii) really free choice and action by conscious animals, including rational human animals.
Let us call these thermodynamic targets live options, and this physical open texture natural open space.
7. Given some live options in natural open space, then, even though you never violate any general causal laws of nature and/or mathematical laws of probability and never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, it remains really possible for you, in context, to choose and do some things you want to, in purposive, creative, and morally-empowered ways, by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring the total quantity of matter or energy that is always already available then and there.
For example, I can type, write down, or declaim aloud any sequence of words that spontaneously comes into my head, for example, my poem, To Bee or Not To Bee.
In all likelihood, that amazing sentence — nay, that amazing poem — has never been produced before in the actual history of the natural universe.
Let’s call this sort of activity, natural self-determination.
Now I’m going to do a little spontaneous dance by flapping my arms and legs, bobbing my head, and hopping up and down a bit (but also being very careful not to spill my coffee, or knock over my laptop)–let’s call this The Freedom Dance.
This act of natural self-determination is just like a creative artist who makes an original work of art by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring whatever already-existing materials are given to her: in fact, it is just like creating To Bee Or Not To Bee.
As naturally self-determining animals, we are all creative natural artists, little bangs, who purposively bring new energy-structures into the world, and thereby actualize potential energy.
The Big Bang has done many things.
But it didn’t, on its own, type, write down, or declaim aloud my amazing poem, nor did it do The Freedom Dance.
I did them both, with actual free agency.
Therefore, I’m not a natural automaton; instead I’m a naturally self-determining animal fully capable of free agency.
8. Now it’s your turn: go ahead and act creatively and/or spontaneously for a few seconds!
Didn’t that feel amazingly good?
Therefore, you and I both aren’t natural automata; on the contrary, we both are self-determining minded human animals capable of free agency.[iv]
So, self-evidently, Natural Libertarianism is true, given my original assumptions.
9. As an encore to that demonstration, now I’m going to refute my most important (although by no means my only!) philosophical opponent, the Hard Determinist.
Here is a typical Hard Determinist–
See how intellectually arrogant and smug he looks!
That’s what comes from writing philosophically false but best-selling books that argue unsoundly from natural science by dogmatically presupposing that Natural Mechanism is true.
Indeed, in his best-selling book, Free Will, the public philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote this:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have…. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.[v]
In other words, Harris is saying
(i) that human free agency is impossible in the natural world as described by physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience,
(ii) because we’re really nothing but either deterministic automata or indeterministic/probabilistic automata, i.e., really nothing but complex machines,
(iii) that we’re not deeply morally or non-morally responsible for anything, and
(iv) that our self-defining belief in our own free agency and deep moral or non-moral responsibility is nothing but a cognitive illusion.
Therefore, Harris is defending what contemporary philosophers call Hard Determinism.
I think that Harris, and, by direct implication, all other Hard Determinists, are completely wrong, in that they are wrong about (i), wrong about (ii), wrong about (iii), and wrong about (iv).
If Natural Libertarianism is true, then they’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
But their view is also deliciously self-refuting, in the following way.
(i) Suppose that one holds what Sam Harris and other Hard Determinists hold.
(ii) If that is true, then we are all natural machines with an irresistibly strong tendency to create cognitive illusions for ourselves.
(iii) Therefore, under the supposition that the Hard Determinist’s theory is true, any holder of such a view cannot rule out the directly relevant possibility that s/he has created a cognitive illusion for herself by defending Natural Mechanism and Hard Determinism.
(iv) But if the Hard Determinist cannot rule out this directly relevant possibility, then s/he is not rationally justified in believing in her own theory, nor is s/he deeply responsible for formulating it; so in particular, then, if Sam Harris’s theory is true, then he’s not rationally justified in believing it and wasn’t even deeply responsible for writing his “own” best-selling book: what a sophist!
(v) So the Hard Determinist’s belief in her/his own theory is cognitively self-undermining.
(vi) Therefore, Hard Determinism is rationally self-stultifying, hence self-refuting, and therefore false.
10. We’ve just seen that Natural Mechanism is false, that Natural Libertarianism is true, and that Hard Determinism is not only false, it’s self-refuting.
— So, by way of what, echoing Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, I’ll call a Concluding Unmechanistic Dionysian Postscript, I’d say that calls for another episode of The Freedom Dance.[vi]
[i] H. Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 198–199.
[ii] It should be especially noted that Natural Libertarianism doesn’t have anything to do with political Libertarianism, which is a combination of psychological egoism, ethical egoism, and neoliberalism. Natural Libertarianism is a metaphysical doctrine, not a political doctrine. Indeed, as regards political philosophy and politics, sharply on the contrary and in direct opposition to political Libertarianism, I’m an anarcho-socialist. (Gasp!) See, e.g., R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview, HERE; and R. Hanna, “Statism, Capitalism, and Beyond,” available online HERE.
[iii] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction,” available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belousov%E2%80%93Zhabotinsky_reaction>.
[iv] Notice that I’m not saying that it’s impossible to design and build a natural machine that, when it’s turned on, makes various motions that might fool someone, or even many people, into believing that it was me or you doing The Freedom Dance. It’s logically, really, naturally, and perhaps even technologically possible that there’s such a machine. On the contrary, what I’m saying is that, necessarily, the deceptive naturally mechanical motions of such a natural mechanism couldn’t be The Freedom Dance, since that and only that was actually freely performed by me or by you, and not by any natural machine that was designed and built to resemble us in various ways.
[v] S. Harris, Free Will (New York: The Free Press, 2012), p. 5.
[vi] And after you’ve done that and thoroughly enjoyed yourself, you can also read my recent book, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview, HERE. No, sadly, it’s not a best seller and never will be. But at least I’m rationally justified in believing what I wrote–and it’s my own work, for better or worse, not the Big Bang’s work. And that’s something.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 361
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 14 December 2019
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