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John Dupré Lecture 6: Free Will

The last of John Dupré’s lectures fell on a beautiful sunny Edinburgh day! It was followed by a succinct and passionate word of appreciation from Professor Stewart Brown. Below is the lecture summary and a response from PhD Student in Religious Studies Joseph Sedgwick.

Professor Brown thanking our 2023 Gifford lecturer

Aware that throughout the lectures he had been promoting the social nature of the human species, Dupré wanted to end his series by thinking about the autonomy of the human individual.

Discussion about the individual in mainstream philosophy is polarized. Are our political and economic structures ultimately serving us as individuals, or, is determinism the reality where our choices do not really impact these larger structures?

Determinists are less prevalent in the philosophy of science but many still hold that exceptionless physical laws determine everything that happens. Individual choice is an illusion and what happens now was fore-ordained by events long ago. Dupré recommends the novel by Liu Cixin The Three Body Problem which explores the nature of life on a planet under the chaotic gravitational influence of three suns.

When I decide that, all things considered, I prefer the apple, why is it important that I somehow be able to choose the orange?

Why should we care that we can have the things that we do not want? David Hume pondered this with his liberty of spontaneity and liberty of indifference. But indifference sparks an idea of randomness, but randomness does not reflect preference. If freedom, in Hume’s thought, is the confidence that we will be able to do what we should do, randomness does not fit well with that.

The most significant missing element is a sense of ‘actual control or power.’ We want to think that our presence, actions and decisions really do impact the world (or at least a small part of it). Agent causation is used to describe this. In Hume’s definition ‘Either the agent is located somehow outside the normal causal order, as in a Cartesian soul, or they are an unexplained anomaly in an otherwise well-ordered world.’ Dupré believes process philosophy offers a way forward.

Rather than seeing order in the world, Dupré see’s chaos. ‘Order is something that emerges occasionally under special circumstances and that lasts for a finite period of time.’ Humans are the pinnacle of order to have emerged from this chaos.

Hume also held that causal powers were non-sensical, but Dupré instead affirms that we constantly see processes interacting and bringing about changes in each other—rain washing dirt from a car, a boy catching a ball. Our process-filled action words—thinking, walking, boiling, singing—and causal interactions—touching, throwing, lifting—describe powers that we observe other entities having and that we exercise that effect our chaotic world.

Unlike machines, whose behaviors explain the structure (a food processor waiting for the switch to cut food) and they have determinate of outcome. We also ascribe this to animals. Dupré explores the 19th century Sphex wasp experiment, recently used by Daniel Dennett, where it was concluded that Sphex’s behaviour is a wholly mechanical routine, even when disrupted by human intervention: ‘place cricket at entrance to the nest, check condition of nest, drag cricket in. If the routine is disrupted the cricket simply tries again to execute it.’ Dutch philosopher Fred Keijzer shows that this example is poorly chosen, and taken out of the context of the 19th century experiments that shows this one example is not true of all wasps.

‘After two or three experiments with results similar to those which I had so often obtained, the Sphex got astride of the Cricket, seized him with her mandibles by the antennae and at once dragged him into the burrow. […] At the other holes, her neighbours likewise, one sooner, another later, discovered my treachery and entered the dwelling with the game, instead of persisting in abandoning it on the threshold to seize it afterwards. (Quoted in Keijzer 2013.)’

Keijzer concludes that the Sphex ‘teaches us more about philosophers and cognitive scientists than about insects.’ The Sphex can observe patterns and improve its route to its goal.

Dupré next defines the difference between a mechanism and a process—all the properties of a mechanism determine the behaviour of a whole, restricting freedom. Processes have ‘changing properties and it is of the nature of many processes, notably living ones, to change the world around them.’ A storm is a process with enormous impact on the world around it. Though, we do not think of a storm as an agent.

we think of agency as pertaining to some degree to anything that has goals and acts to further them. A storm certainly has no goals.

We may think of a thermostat having goals, but it is only given those goals by a programme. Living systems are typically opportunistic. It is possible to do better and organisms generally do try to do better. ‘If entomologists became a common enough nuisance to the lifeworld of sphexes, it is likely that they would soon evolve to become smarter.’ Dennett’s spinx is only adapting responding to its immediate environment. Real spinx however can change its behaviour to better reach its goals.

Defining agentiality:

1: goals—we have preference of how the world should be.

2: learn—as we discovered even spinx can, but so can more developed machines, evolving lineages perhaps to include bacterium.

3: creativity—though this is hard to define from routine and not slip into randomness.

4: foresight—where we can draw upon social experience. New Caledonian crows have become famous for this where they can use tools to imagine steps ahead of where they currently are operating.

‘The self-evident fact, however, that humans have a great many aims, most of which have no connection to biological competition is a central reason why sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have generally seemed hopelessly simplistic approaches to understanding the human.’ These goals depend on our place in society and the division of labour, farmers have goal to do with production, ‘politicians, occasionally, with a well-run society.’ These two people will also have other goals, memorizing the bible, winning their local goal tournament, learning languages, or protesting about the treatment of chickens perhaps.

In contrast to our background of disorder, ‘we are the densest concentrations of causal power in the known universe.’ Think of how predictable humans are—especially British humans, tea at 4pm, dinner at 6.30pm, being on time to meet a friend for coffee etc.

Humans really cannot escape the causal order, whatever that is. If, as I argue, causal order is rare, but humans are replete with it, this does not, obviously, put humans outside that order. But if the causality that generates our action is our own capacity to impose order on our world, then I don’t think we should be very concerned: the order that constrains us is largely of our own making.

This, though, does not solve questions of cause and change, responsibility, credit and blame. Dupré distinguishes between kinds of motivation. Deciding to adopt a gym routine constrains our choices, for the bigger goal of our fitness or health. Deciding to stay in bed or actually go to the gym is a real choice. We, as humans, aren’t just moved to do things in the moment.

The ability to do not what I am currently moved to do, stay in bed, but what I am committed to doing, go to the gym, seems to me the interesting exercise of freedom. As a process creating a path of order through a chaotic world, I am able to choose some part of the order I impose.

This lecture series, Dupré reflects, concerns order coming from chaos—atoms, stars, cells, organisms etc., and the human capacity to understand the workings of the world and our ability to reorganize it (in harmful ways usually) ‘is a new stage in this gradual emergence of casual powers.

The commitment to gym instead of wallowing in bed overrides the desires of the moment, and this ability has led us to work cooperatively. This relates to Kant’s ‘only acting in accordance with moral duty am I free.’ For Dupré, rather than dwell on objective morality, he believes that it is ‘limiting my possible action in accordance with some larger ambition for my life that provides freedom.’ A strong aligns behaviour with one’s principles and goals over immediate desires.

But, where do principles or goals come from? Upbringing, maybe genetic luck, or experience, so we do not choose those, so can we claim credit for the principles that guide our actions? Dupré reflected on how much of this is down to luck. Even though self-cultivation i a vital aspect of human lives, ‘ the ability to cultivate the self is itself something that must depend in large part on accidents of origin.’

He concluded that our developmental human projects, ‘projects from the pursuit of learning or spiritual insight, to building houses or roads, to curing illness and teaching the young’ require cooperation between innumerable human beings. So, ‘freedom is, in the end, a social construct’, not in a demeaning way—that society is not real, but as a way of seeing that our individuality enables conditions of where we are able to live out our sociable natures and constantly make changes to our world collectively. It’s important to remember therefore that ‘the ability to enjoy these things is entirely dependent on a functioning society.’ Those without the benefits of a functioning society, who are cold, hungry or bored, have not the luxury of freedom.

To end, Dupré stressed how a processual view of the world, unlike a substance view of things, is a world of possibility. We do not need to be concerned with how things have to be, necessity, which makes it inevitable that society is unequal because of human nature or economic theory.

Processes evolve, and their evolution is affected by many factors. There are very many things in the present world that are not as we would wish them to be, and process science can, perhaps, tell us how we might help them to get better. It may not be easy, but neither is it ruled out from the start by philosophical argument. This is surely a more attractive and encouraging view of the world. How fortunate that it is also true!

Response: Joseph Sedgwick 

Firstly, as someone who remembers having a minor existential crisis when I first encountered the idea of hard determinism as a teenager, my thanks to Professor Dupré for what strikes me as a very plausible defence of free will. I’d like to summarise his argument, and then offer a contrast between the progressive political implications he draws from it, and a notable conservative thinker’s take on a freedom, tied to order that emerged out of chaos. As Dupré summarizes it, defences of free will have usually had two strategies open to them

  • to prove that humans somehow have causal power that stands outside of an otherwise ordered and deterministic Universe
  • or to rely on the existence of randomness to show humans are not always bound by universal laws.

Both are problematic. In the first case, the agent becomes “an unexplained anomaly in an otherwise well-ordered world” while in the second, it is not obvious why random interventions in our behavior would actually make us any freer than if we were bound by universal laws.

As an alternative Dupré proposes that instead of being a chaotic exception to an ordered universe, our free will comes from being the most ordered process that has emerged out of a chaotic universe, and as such able to make choices about what order we impose on the surrounding chaos. To a certain extent, Dupré argues, all organisms display this. Even the Sphex wasp, often used as an example of deterministic, machine-like behaviour among animals, turns out to actually be capable of changing its actions depending on the environment to help achieve its goal (dragging some poor cricket into its lair).

Humans, of course, have far more numerous and varied goals than the wasp. This brings us to I think the most important part of Dupré’s argument, the degree to which human’s high degree of agency is a social construct – which is not to say it is ‘not real’ but that it is made real through the cooperation of large numbers of individual humans. Like the Sphex wasp, we can change our behaviour in response to our environment, to help achieve our goals. Unlike the wasp, we can also change what those goals are – build skyscrapers, discover the structure of matter or go to the gym. But we do so with the knowledge that the system of our fellow humans means that the sort of basic goals that exclusively drive the wasp (food, shelter etc) will be taken care of, allowing us the freedom to constrain our actions from searching for those in pursuit of those ‘higher’ goals. In this sense Dupré is in agreement with Kant that true freedom comes from being able to restrain action in service of some ‘higher’ ambition (although whether there is an objectively higher duty is left unspecified here). For example, when I go rock climbing, I can constrain the natural self-preservation instincts (or simply the desire to slump in front of the TV during my free time) and choose to attempt progressively harder routes, knowing that if I had an accident a system of humans will provide me with medical care.

I find it interesting that Dupré’s account of a dichotomy between chaos and order – with the order that has emerged out of evolution being the key to our human flourishing – to be a very similar narrative to that proposed by probably the most prominent conservative intellectual of our age Jordan Peterson, and yet then taken to a very different conclusion. Like Dupré, Peterson also views human life as essentially a dichotomy between natural chaos and an order which has emerged out of it during the process of human evolution. Like Dupré, Peterson believes it is only in that order (and the limitations it places on our actions) where freedom can be exercised. But for Peterson’s ‘materialist Darwinism’ this order implies a cultural and political conservatism – or as he famously put it after discussing fights amongst lobsters for control of territory “hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years… a near-eternal aspect of the environment… we were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones… hierarchies are older than trees.”[1]

By contrast, Dupré emphasises that since this order emerged out of a process, it is not a finished product and can continue to evolve. In contrast to a mechanism which remains static until called upon, a process has constantly changing properties. The order that free will is dependent on then is not something handed down unchangeable from the past, but a living, evolving thing. It is a view that is far more sceptical of supposed ‘facts of human nature’ that rule out the possibility of creating a better world. Furthermore, it gives us an added incentive to do so, since the kind of order that allows people to pursue grander goals over basic needs is not available to a large part of the population. Inequality is then not only unjust, but also an attack on the free will of many humans.

The commercial success of Peterson’s writings show a profound desire for a sense of order, and the form of freedom that can be found in it. Visions of that order like Dupré’s, which push us towards a better, more just version of it are therefore needed in the public discourse and I thank him for setting out that view.

[1] Jordan Peterson (Toronto, Penguin Random House, 2018) 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos, p. 14

1 reply to “John Dupré Lecture 6: Free Will”

  1. John Dupré says:

    Perhaps my final contribution to this blog, so an opportunity to thank everybody who has been part of it. First, to the guiding force behind the blog, Victoria Turner, both for her reliably accurate and readable summaries of all the lectures, and for organising the whole process. Thanks! Also to all the bloggers for your excellent and insightful reflections. They have added greatly to my intellectual enjoyment of the lecture series. Specifically, to Joseph Sedgwick for the final blog. Once again I had the feeling I mentioned reacting to Kate Nave’s end of series reflection: you helped me remember why I cared so much about this project. I didn’t know that Jordan Peterson had some similar views–I confess to not having read much of his writing–but I am very pleased to have shown how one can draw some more hopeful conclusions from our somewhat similar starting points. And finally, a last opportunity to thank Jay Brown, not just for the beautifully crafted and enormously generous closing appreciation, but for being the perfectly gracious and generous host throughout the process and indeed for the three years between the initial invitation and the presentation of the lectures. It has been a delight to finally meet you in person. Thanks for everything!
    And really finally, I cannot leave out Louise Trotter and Nicola Cruickshank for their tireless works in making everything run so smoothly in and around the lectures. Thanks!

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