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Balaguer, Mark. Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem.

BALAGUER, Mark. Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010. 202pp. Cloth, $35.00--Mark Balaguer reconsiders the old question of free will versus determinism here in a very interesting way. He reformulates the problem of free will, explains what he thinks a genuine free will would require, anal argues that there are no really good arguments for or against determinism, that while, on his analysis, it is possible to say what free will requires, it is not possible in our current state of knowledge to say whether, in fact, our acts of decision meet the requirements. The traditional formulation of the problem has to be revised, he says, in light of the emergence of quantum mechanics, which calls into question deterministic assumptions about physical processes. Quantum mechanics suggests that some happenings, at least, may be truly random, which if true implies there is at least some indeterminacy in the workings of nature. This possibility is of great significance for the question of free will because, Balaguer argues, free will of the kind we really care about requires a certain kind of indeterminacy. If, therefore, natural indeterminacy is possible, free will is possible.

Whether we in fact have free will is not, Balaguer says, strictly speaking a metaphysical question, if metaphysics concerns the state of the world, but rather a simple empirical question about our decisionmaking processes. It is a question of whether our decisions involve certain specific features. Generally, the decisions must be, at the moment of choice, "appropriately nonrandom"--they must be in some way "authored and controlled" by the person choosing. But for this appropriate nonrandomness to constitute a genuine free will, Balaguer argues, it must be indeterminate in a particular kind of way. The person must be able to choose freely between different possibilities, to choose one option when he could just as well have chosen another. Balaguer thinks that such indeterminacy can be made consistent with nonrandomness. If a person has free will, he is not determined to choose the option he does--there is real indeterminacy at the moment of choice--but the indeterminacy involved does not mean the decision is random; it is, to use the old-fashioned term, deliberate.

Balaguer's strategy for handling the problem is to focus on a particular kind of decision he takes to clarify the issues especially well: "tom decisions," or decisions between two options we have equally good reasons to take (and so are tom between them), so that if we are to take either of them we must "just choose" one. If our tom decisions have certain features, he argues, then we have free will. In effect, Balaguer uses the case of tom decisions to show what it would mean for our decisions to be appropriately nonrandom. He makes his key points persuasively. First, he argues that if our tom decisions are "wholly" indeterminate, we author and control them because nothing else bur we ourselves could have "made" them. Second, complete indeterminacy at the moment of choice enhances rather than (as one would expect if our decisions were random) diminishes our freedom of choice because it leaves the will as unbound as it could possibly be. Choosing according to clearly best reasons, for instance, though we might for some immediate gratification choose otherwise, would seem to involve relatively less freedom than tom decisions because best reasons are in some sense literally compelling. Third, Balaguer says, wholly undetermined tom decisions are "worth wanting, or worth caring about," because they enhance spontaneity and give us greater control over the shape of our lives. Finally (responding to some free will theorists' claim that genuine choices must be rational, made in accordance with conscious reasons), wholly undetermined tom decisions are rational, or at least not irrational, because though in such cases we have no clear best reasons for choosing one option over the other, we have good reasons for wanting each.

But while these conditions of freedom seem entirely possible, says Balaguer, we have at present no good arguments to show that they do, in fact, obtain in our experience. It may be that our decisions are determined. Balaguer considers the major arguments given for and against determinism--a priori arguments, empirical arguments, arguments from psychology--and finds them all to be inconclusive. This is an interesting finding in itself, of course, but the larger significance, in light of how important having some meaningful control of our lives seems to be for us, is Balaguer's convincing case that we have no good reason to think we don't have some control. This is a real achievement.

There are, however, certain difficulties with Balaguer's analysis that demand further consideration. First, he says that the question of free will "comes down to a wide open empirical question about the moment-of-choice causal determinacy of the neural events that are our tom decisions," but he does not say how he knows that tom decisions are "neural events," nor how neural events could be acts of free will. In what sense do we really "author and control" neural events since we are not even conscious of what's happening neurologically in our decisions? Second, from the fact we don't know how we have free will it does not necessarily follow we don't know that we do. We know a lot of things we cannot explain. It may be, as Thomas Reid said, that the freedom of our decisions is just self-evident. But in undermining deterministic arguments that might cause us to doubt our apparent freedom, Balaguer has done a valuable service.--Scott Segrest, U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
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Author:Segrest, Scott
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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