What is metaphysical free will?

This is an attempt to explain metaphysical free will. This serves to explain metaphysics in general.

First: on the distinction between subject-properties and object-properties. The subject-object relation holds between some subject and some object. For example, a person might be a subject looking at a table, which is an object. Objects are, roughly, entities that could potentially be beheld by some subject.

Metaphysical free will is a property of subjects rather than objects. This will make more sense if I first contrast it with object-properties.

Objects can be defined by some properties: location, color, temperature, and so on. These properties yield testable predictions. Objects that are hot will be painful to touch, for example.

Object properties are best-defined when they are closely connected with testable predictions. The logical positivist program, though ultimately unsuccessful, is quite effective when applied to defining object properties. Similarly, the falsificationist program is successful in clarifying the meaning of a variety of scientific hypotheses in terms of predictions.

Intuitively, free will has to do with the ability of a someone to choose from one of multiple options. This implies a kind of unpredictability, at least from the perspective of the one making the choice.

Hence, there is a tension in considering free will as an object-property, in that object properties are about predictable relations, whereas free will is about choice. (Probabilistic randomness would not much help either, as e.g. taking an action with 50% probability does not match the intuitive notion of choice)

The most promising attempts to define free will as an object-property are within the physicalist school that includes Gary Drescher and Daniel Dennett. These define choice in terms of optimization: selection of the best action from a list of options, based upon anticipated consequences. This remains an object-property, because it yields a testable prediction: that the chosen action will be the one that is predicted to lead to the best consequences (and if the agent is well-informed, one that actually will). Drescher calls this “mechanical choice”.

I will now contrast object-properties (including mechanical choice) with subject-properties.

The distinction between subjects and objects is, to a significant extent, grammatical. Subjects do things, objects have things done to them. “I repaired the table with some glue.”

It is easy to detect notions of choice in ordinary language. “I could have gone to the store but I chose not to”; “you don’t have to do all that work”; “this software has so many options and capabilities“.

Functional definitions of objects are often defined in terms of the capabilities the subject has in using the object. For example, an axe can (roughly) be defined as an object that can be swung to hit another object and create a rift.

The desiderata of products, including software, are about usability. The desire is for an object that can be used in a number of ways.

Moral language, too, refers to capabilities. What one should do depends on what one can do; see Ought implies Can.

We could say, then, that this sort of subjunctive language is tied with orienting towards reality in a certain way. The orientation is, specifically, about noticing the capabilities that one’s self (and perhaps others) have, and communicating about these capabilities. I find that replacing the word “metaphysics” with the word “orientation” is often illuminating.

When this orientation is coupled with language, the language describes itself as between observation and action. That is: we talk as if we may take action on the basis of our speech. Thus, our language refers to, among other things, our capabilities, which are decision-relevant. This is in contrast to thinking of language as a side effect, or as an action in itself.

This could be studied in AI terms. An AI may be programmed to assume it has control of “its action”, and may have a model of what the consequences of various actions are, which correspond to its capabilities. From the AI’s perspective, it has a choice among multiple actions, hence in a sense “believing in metaphysical free will”. To program an AI to take effective actions, it isn’t sufficient for it to develop a model of what is; it must also develop a model of what could be made to happen. (The AI may, like a human, generate verbal reports of its capabilities, and select actions on the basis of these verbal reports)

Even relatively objective ways of orienting towards reality notice capabilities. I’ve already noted the phenomenon of functional definitions. If you look around, you will see many objects, and you will also likely notice affordances: ways these objects may be used. It may seem that these affordances inhere in the objects, although it would be more precise to say that affordances exist in the subject-object relationship rather than the object itself, as they depend on the subject.

Metaphysics isn’t directly an object of scientific study, but can be seen in the scientific process itself, in the way that one must comport one’s self towards reality to do science. This comportment includes tool usage, logic, testing, observation, recording, abstraction, theorizing, and so on. The language scientists use in the course of their scientific study, and their communication about the results, reveals this metaphysics.

(Yes, recordings of scientific practice may be subject to scientific study, but interpreting the raw data of the recordings as e.g. “testing” requires a theory bridging between the objective recorded data and whatever “testing” is, where “testing” is naively a type of intentional action)

Upon noticing choice in one’s metaphysics, one may choose to philosophize on it, to see if it holds up to consistency checks. If the metaphysics leads to inconsistencies, then it should be modified or discarded.

The most obvious possible source of inconsistency is in the relation between the metaphysical “I” and the physical body. If the “I” is identical with one’s own physical body, then metaphysical properties of the self, such as freedom of choice, must be physical properties, leading to the usual problems.

If, on the other hand, the “I” is not identical with one’s physical body, then it must be explained why the actions and observations of the “I” so much align with the actions of the body; the mind-body relation must be clarified.

Another issue is akrasia; sometimes it seems that the mind decides to take an action but the body does not move accordingly. Thus, free will may be quite partial, even if it exists.

I’ve written before about reconciliation between metaphysical free will and the predictions of physics. I believe this account is better than the others I have seen, although nowhere near complete.

It is worth contrasting the position of believing in metaphysical free will with its converse. For example, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states that the wise do not identify with the doer:

All actions are performed by the gunas of prakriti. Deluded by identification with the ego, a person thinks, “I am the doer.” But the illumined man or woman understands the domain of the gunas and is not attached. Such people know that the gunas interact with each other; they do not claim to be the doer.

Bhagavad Gita, Easwaran translation, ch. 3, 27-28

In this case the textual “I” is dissociated from the “doer” which takes action. Instead, the “I” is more like a placeholder in a narrative created by natural mental processes (gunas), not an agent in itself. (The interpretation here is not entirely clear, as Krishna also gives commands to Arjuna)

This specific discussion of metaphysical free will generalizes to metaphysics in general. Metaphysics deals with the basic entities/concepts associated with reality, subjects, and objects. It is contrasted with physics, which deals with objects, generalizing from observable properties of them (and the space they exist in and so on) to lawful theories.

To summarize metaphysical free will:

  • We talk in ways that imply that we and others have capabilities and make choices.
  • This way of talking is possible and sufficiently-motivated because of the way we comport ourselves towards reality, noticing our capabilities.
  • Effective AIs should similarly be expected to model their own capabilities as distinct from the present state of the world.
  • It is difficult to coherently identify these capabilities we talk as if we have, with physical properties of our bodies.
  • Therefore, it may be a reasonable (at least provisional) assumption that the capabilities we have are not physical properties of our bodies, and are metaphysical.
  • The implications of this assumption can be philosophically investigated, to build out a more coherent account, or to find difficulties in doing so.
  • There are ways of critiquing metaphysical free will. The assumption may lead to contradictions, with observations, well-supported scientific theories, and so on.

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