[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter…]
Sometimes it’s good, or even necessary, to go back to the basics. This is true of all complex and/or confusing issues, and free will certainly qualifies. Scientia Salon has published a number of essays on free will before , and this special “free will week” has begun with a vigorous, neurobiologically based defense of compatibilism and will end (in a couple of days) with a provocative, high-tech, apology for libertarianism!
Yet, underlying all current discussions about the topic is a large and sophisticated philosophical literature on free will, spanning centuries of writings and much more than the three basic positions (incompatibilism, compatibilism, and libertarianism) usually considered in lay summaries. Meghan Griffith’s Free Will: the Basics  is a splendid companion for anyone who is either dipping their toes into the debate for the first time, or has become sufficiently confused that they need to step back a little and re-examine the big picture.
The first thing to appreciate about Griffith’s book (other than its brevity!) is that it doesn’t seem to have an agenda. She is not attempting to convince her readers that a particular view on free will is obviously better than another, or that some approaches to the issues are so plain silly that it is hard to imagine why any rational person would even entertain them — contrary, it must be said, to a number of more or less obnoxious books and articles that have come to light recently.
Instead, most chapters follow the same standard outline: an introduction to a particular broad view on free will, followed by a discussion of a number of flavors within that broad view, then an explanation of how that view is supposed to solve the problem of free will, followed in turn by a consideration of objections raised against the view, a summary, and an invitation to further reading. This structure is similar to the one adopted in one of the books that most influenced my early development as a scientist and, later, as a philosopher: Alan Chalmers’ What is This Thing Called Science? , a tour de force in philosophy of science covering everything from induction to falsificationism, from paradigms shifts to research programs, from anarchist theories to Bayesian approaches. That’s the way to stimulate someone’s mind: provide them with the basic tools and let them do at the least some of the hard work.
Back to Griffith’s volume: it begins (chapter 2, after the Introduction) by tackling what the author calls “the compatibility issue,” that is the question of how it is possible to have free will within the context of a deterministic universe. In proper philosophical fashion, the chapter starts with a clarification of what “compatible” means, as people often confuse statements of compatibility with statements of factuality (two things can be compatible in principle, and yet only one, or neither, may actually be the case in practice). Griffith then moves to defining determinism, which implies a discussion of the (controversial) concept of laws of nature. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter consists in an attempt to separate determinism from causality: as the author says, “we do need to worry about a certain thesis that has often been confused with determinism. This is the thesis that ‘every event has a cause,’” since the two are not the same. More specifically, it is perfectly possible to maintain that determinism is false, but that universal causation holds (indeed, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to that particular position). Still within the same chapter, Griffith proceeds to untangle different conceptions of determinism, and finally begins to layout the territory by introducing the differences among compatibilism, “hard” incompatibilism and “libertarian” incompatibilism.
The next issue, of course, is the one that makes discussions of free will so much more than academic disquisitions: the question of moral responsibility (chapter 3). But, again, one cannot simply assume that we are all on the same page about what, exactly, it means to carry “moral responsibility” for one’s actions, and accordingly Griffith starts out by clarifying that particular but crucial preliminary. She introduces Strawson’s view that responsibility is linked to an agent being the appropriate target of certain attitudes; for instance, if you step on my toes by chance I will not (or should not!) blame you, but if you do it on purpose I am justified in remonstrating. Griffith then engages in a very clear discussion of the so-called Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), the idea that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. Much hinges, especially for the compatibilist, on how exactly that “could” is cashed out, as the author explains at some length. This in turns leads to a crucial — and unfortunately little known outside of the technical literature — discussion of so-called “Frankfurt-style” counterexamples to the PAP, so named after philosopher Harry Frankfurt, perhaps best known to the general public for his marvelous booklet On Bullshit .
There are many variants of Frankfurt-style scenarios, which have of course been subjected to criticism and have accordingly been revised to take such criticism on board. Just to give you a flavor, however, the classic example runs something like this (summarizing Griffith): Kathy really wants to kill Virginia. Ned also wants to kill Virginia (we are not told why so many people want to bump off Virginia, but it’s irrelevant…). Ned figures that he can get away with murder by hacking into Kathy’s brain and implanting a switch that, when activated, will trigger a murderous action on Kathy’s part. Ned’s truly evil plan is to activate the switch only in the event that Kathy doesn’t go through with her own plan, as a fail safe, so to speak. Ned watches what Kathy does when in the presence of Virginia, is about to pull the switch, when in fact Kathy acts and kills Virginia. (I have always wondered why so many philosophical thought experiments are so gruesome, but that’s another story.) Now the question: is Kathy responsible for Virginia’s death? The idea is that we are inclined to say yes, because it was her decision. And yet, she couldn’t really avoid it, could she? Had she not acted, her brain, controlled by Ned, would have forced her to do it anyway. So we seem to have a counterexample to the PAP: someone who appears to be responsible for her actions even though she could not have done otherwise. Yes, yes, there are objections to Frankfurt-type scenarios, as I mentioned above, but also clever retorts. I will leave the reader — as Griffith so often says in the book — to work things out for herself.
From chapters 4 through 6 we are then treated to a survey of compatibilist (ch. 4), incompatibilist (ch. 5), and “other” (ch. 6) positions on free will. I will not go into any detail here, except for presenting what I hope will be a useful concept map of the major positions and sub-positions ably discussed by Griffith:
It is, I think, instructive — and hopefully even a bit humbling — to contemplate just how many possible stances one can more or less sensibly defend concerning the question of free will.
The next to the last chapter (n. 7), before some concluding thoughts, deals with the issue that I’m sure has been on the minds of most readers for the past several minutes: what about science? Griffith begins by clearly stating that of course science is relevant to the problem at hand, just as it is relevant to any philosophical question that is not purely detached from the actual world (like, say, some discussions in modal logic). This, however, does not mean that the issue can or should be simply handed over to the scientists, contra much ink needlessly spilled recently by a number of authors with a clear scientistic leaning.
The first sciency topic is, of course, determinism, and therefore fundamental physics, and therefore quantum mechanics, even though it ought to be clear to any sophisticated reader of the free will controversies that actually determinism has comparatively little to do with the issue. A related but more interesting discussion concerns whether and to what extent quantum phenomena percolate up to the macroscopic level sufficiently to actually influence the way the brain works, thus providing part of the mechanism for free will. Griffith tackles this general topic, and even specific studies, such as one allegedly showing the existence of indeterministic processes underlying the behavior of fruit flies.
The author then moves to psychology, distinguishing psychological from nomological determinism, making the good point that psychological determinism (the idea that our behavior is determined by our psychological makeup) could be true even if nomological determinism is false, and thereby adding yet another layer of complexity to the discussion.
Next Griffith tackles the contribution of neuroscience, beginning with the well known (and much hyped, in my mind ) Libet experiments. Thankfully, she devotes a significant amount of space to Alfred Mele’s analysis of Libet’s experiments, which are among the most clear ones to show that Libet’s results, as interesting as they surely are, tell us pretty much nothing about free will.
Griffith also discusses the contention, advanced for instance by psychologist Daniel Wegner, that conscious will is an “illusion,” one of a number of recently popular (and, in my mind, a bit facile) “it’s all an illusion” positions. Again, Mele offers pertinent responses here, together with another philosopher, Eddy Nahmias. The two approach the issue differently: Mele describes a number of experiments that seem to show pretty convincingly that intentions do have causal efficacy; Nahmias raises what we might call the evolutionary conundrum: given how expensive, metabolically speaking, it is to maintain a brain apparatus that produces the “illusion” of consciousness, what, exactly, could justify such extravagance on the part of natural selection? A difficult question, made even more so by the fact that to this day we don’t really have good, empirically testable hypotheses to account for the evolution of consciousness.
Griffith concludes her book by acknowledging that the reader might be a bit confused after the fast paced whirlwind to which she has just exposed him. But that is okay, or indeed even part of the very point, since, as she puts it: “with philosophy, if you are not somewhat perplexed, you are probably not doing it right! It’s like physical training for fitness or sports. You need to feel some exertion in order to make progress. When doing philosophy, you need to break a mental sweat!” Or, as the Ninth Doctor put it (adapted from a different context): “The thing is, [philosophy / time travel] is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guide book. You’ve got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers — or is that just me?” 
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 Free Will: The Basics, by Meghan Griffith, Routledge, 2013.
 What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan F. Chalmers, Hackett Publishing Company, 2013.
 On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, 2005.
 See Choosing a compatibilist Free Will perspective, by Dwayne Holmes, Scientia Salon, 26 January 2015.
 The Long Game, Doctor Who: Season 1, Episode 7, 21 April 2006.
Categories: book review