My Problem with the Two Lever Argument Against Free Will

two-leverI’m fascinated by people who, like Daniel Miessler in his article The Two-lever Argument Against Free Will, claim that humans only have “the sensation” of free will. There are some serious heavy weights in the determinist camp who I agree with on many other issues. I’m going to take a look at Miessler’s argument and see if it convinces me. Let’s start with his definition:

Free will is the ability to have willfully chosen otherwise for any previous decision. If one could not have willfully chosen to do otherwise for any given previous decision then that decision cannot be said to be free.

This is weirdly worded. My definition is compatible, I think: Free will is the ability to consciously choose between two or more alternatives. The key to this definition is that the will, not prior cause or mere randomness, made the choice. Miessler then slips in this assertion:

Because we live in a deterministic universe, we can not have chosen otherwise.

What? When did we establish that the universe is deterministic? That’s the entire argument: Free will vs. determinism.

Quantum randomness leading to an alternative outcome does not count because humans don’t willfully influence quantum randomness.

I don’t know enough quantum mechanics to judge the truth of this, but I wouldn’t appeal to quantum randomness anyway.

The Two-lever Argument posits that there exist only two levers for humans gaining the ability to do otherwise during a decision, and that one must be able to control at least one of these in order to have true choice:

  1. The previous state of the universe
    How the universe was configured at the moment prior to you making a decision.
  2. The laws that govern the universe
    The physical rules that will determine how the universe transitions from one state to another, namely from the previous-state to the next-state.

OK. On what basis is consciousness excluded as a lever? Let’s see if that is explained.

If you do not have some measure of control over at least one of these two variables, you simply cannot control any future state of the universe. And if you are unable to control any future state of the universe, then—regardless of how it may feel to us—we are incapable of making a true, free decision. Instead, events are moving through you, and you are being given the perception that you made a choice.

Even if you accept that the two levers are it (i.e. there is nothing supernatural), there is an additional requirement: that there is no as yet unknown physical law that allows the will to control things at any level. That is a huge assumption. Given that we accept that we know all there is to know about physical laws, determinism does seem to follow. So, is consciousness merely a mere emergent property of the brain, a neat trick that evolved to give us a Darwinian advantage over the animals? Is everything we ever do predetermined from the moment of the big bang? If that’s true, why should we care about anything?

Alternatively, could it be that there is more to the universe than the physical laws we currently understand? Is there a new physical law waiting to be discovered? Could the universe have a purpose? Could that purpose even be to evolve the very consciousness that is able to transcend the physical in some way that we don’t currently understand, and give us the free will that we experience? I don’t claim to know. I think that those who do have jumped to a conclusion that may turn out to be wrong.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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4 Responses to My Problem with the Two Lever Argument Against Free Will

  1. The fallacy is the presumption that causal inevitability is a constraint. When I read about this stuff as a teenager in the public library, I worried about how I might overcome this inevitability. If I was choosing between A and B, and it seemed to me that A was winning, and about to be my inevitable choice, could I spite inevitability by choosing B instead? Well, if I did that then my desire to spite inevitability would have caused me to make B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A again, right? And so on in an infinite loop.

    But I noticed something in this thought experiment. No matter what choice I made, inevitability would always match it. It was equally valid to claim that my choice was controlling what became inevitable as to claim that inevitability was controlling my choice!

    Either way, causal inevitability is not a meaningful constraint, because what I will inevitably do will always be exactly identical to me just being me, doing what I do, and choosing what I choose.

    And once we stop viewing it as a constraint, we can also stop making other silly assumptions, like the one that says determinism is incompatible with free will. After all, the choices that we make are made for our own purpose and our own reasons, which means they are authentically our own choices. And because our purpose and our reasons causally determine our choice, we can also say our choosing is a deterministic event.

    Sounds counter-intuitive, but the fact is that every deliberate choice we make of our own free will is also causally inevitable. Both facts, autonomy and inevitability, are simultaneously true in every choice we make.

    • jimbelton says:

      This is the compatibilism argument. I’d agree that if you buy determinism, then it doesn’t matter from our point of view, and we must still go on acting as if we aren’t predestined to do everything we will ever do. I just don’t buy that we understand enough about reality to say that determinism is true. Claiming certainty that there is no such thing as conscious free will that is incompatible with determinism seems to me to similar to claiming to know with certainty that God exists.

      • I hesitate to say that anything is actually “predetermined” or “predestined”. For example, if I am hungry and decide to eat an apple, then I am the only object in the universe that actually has an interest in bringing about this event. Nor does any prior cause have an interest in me eating the apple. Prior to my existence, my hunger did not even exist.

        Another thing to keep in mind is that causation is not like a chain or string of dominos. It is more like a branching tree structure. The final responsible cause of me eating the apple is me. The farther back you go the less direct and less relevant each cause becomes.

      • jimbelton says:

        If you accept that there was one event that started it all (the big bang), then if determinism (with or without compatible free will) is true, everything was predestined in that moment. So the branching tree structure has one root domino. Of course, we don’t really know what happened in the first few seconds of the universe, so this argument doesn’t bother me much either. I’m single point of causality agnostic 🙂

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