The Decision Machine

Finnish version not currently available.

The problem of determinism and free will is a weird one. Even once it’s been shown there is no problem objectively, and I do very strongly assert this can be done even if it seems at least half of all philosophers disagree with me there, an obvious subjective problem remains. In this article, I will present a thought experiment that may help to explain it.

Our intuition tends to say that if what choice we make could be predicted in advance by specifying the exact circumstances, then we do not really have a free choice. I will not go into the full proof for why this is not right; it took my whole Bachelor’s thesis to explain it properly, examining the logical possibilities and showing that determinism, not indeterminism, accords with the rest of our intuitions of what freedom is. To put it shortly: What we really want is to do as we want or according to our best judgement. We do not really want our choices to be completely undetermined, because then we would just act at random. (Except for Sartre. He recognised this but wanted it anyway because he was so big on choice and freedom. I still doubt he could form a coherent praxis of living based on this, though; presumably he still took intentional actions and relied to some extent on being able to do so.) We don’t want them to be partially random, either. What we really want is basically that we can change our minds and not always be determined by some particular inclination even if we do not otherwise wish it to control us any more. But this is not incompatible with a complex form of determinism, only very simplistic, single-factor versions of it. If you choose not to follow one inclination that you don’t want to follow, it’s because you have another, stronger one, not because you’re being random. Randomly doing contrary to what you want is hardly a good thing or what people want or have reason to want.

Yet, everyone’s intuition seems to tell them that if, when faced with a choice, their decision-making will be a deterministic process and has strictly speaking only one possible outcome, then there is no real choice or freedom. It’s even hard for me to get over that intuition, and I’m pretty much positive I have analysed how it really works (on the level of logical possibilities if not the surely much more complicated level of actual psychology). Really, the puzzle now becomes why we have such an intuition. There’s also the practical question of how to get people to put aside this intuition for long enough to so much as understand the compatibilist view that determinism does not contradict free will.

Well, I have come up with a thought experiment that I call “The Decision Machine” that might help with understanding both why we feel that way and why it is wrong. This isn’t supposed to be an accurate presentation of how the psychology of decision-making really works — that’s up to psychologists to find out, and in fact their findings seem to show that we are in truth partly free and partly unfree even in a compatibilist sense — but it’s supposed to crudely capture the kind of situation that we are in when making decisions.

The Decision Machine

Suppose, now, that you, or the part of your mind that makes decisions, really is a deterministic system. It takes certain information about how things are (this can include things like your current mood) as input, and gives certain decisions as output. And given any completely specified input, it can only give one kind of output. So it is a deterministic system. Note that this part of you can be conscious, unconscious, or a combination of both. Even if it’s conscious, it’s still deterministic in this story.

The decisions that this system (you) produces are predetermined, but they are not actually determined until they are made. Sure, they’re determined “in advance” and could in principle even be known in advance, and the process is deterministic, but it’s only the process that produces any given decision. They’re not actualised before the process has happened.

Now, the different options you make the choice between have to either be part of the input itself, or they have to be produced in an intermediate stage during the decision-making process, indeed before that process proper gets started. This is the important part. What does this mean to you the decision-making machine, about how those options have to be presented to you? If you are making the choice between them, no matter how deterministic, they all have to be presented as possible options. When you make a decision between certain options, you must see those options as possible. Before the decision-making machine has made a decision between different options, it must process all the options. It can’t just process the one option that it’s going to choose, because it hasn’t selected it yet at that point.

Perhaps you see where this is going? If and when it goes anything like this, of course we must see all the options as open to us. If we do not, then we are not making a choice between them. This assuming determinism, not contrary to it. So is it a wonder if, when imagining a deterministic scenario of making a decision where we know only one choice is really possible, we get confused and feel as though it’s not freedom?

Note that there are also different senses of possibility involved here — in some sense, the different options are possible, just not in the strictest sense if determinism holds.

There are also psychological parallels to this; as I mentioned rather centrally in my earlier article “How to Make People Irresponsible”, believing one does not have a choice actually does have the effect of making people act as if they have no freedom.

We should come to understand that even if we are links in a causal chain, we ourselves are true links in it. When we are free, our choices are not determined from outside of us, they are determined through our own intimate involvement — again, implying a kind of determinism, not indeterminism.


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