Thursday, March 01, 2018

A Thought Experiment

A few years ago, I remember reading a proponent of Libertarian Free Will (LFW) argue that LFW should be the default position because, in as near of a quote as I can remember: “Even determinists still act like their choices are real.”  Setting aside the question-begging that the only choices that could be “real” are LFW choices, the argument seemed to be:

A - LFW implies that you could have chosen other than you did (the LFW definition of a free choice).

B - People who hold to determinism feel as if they could have chosen otherwise (taken as a given).

C - Therefore, the default way we think of choice presupposes LFW. 

(To be fair, the person who was saying this was not attempting to argue that this proved LFW correct, but rather that it proved LFW was the “natural” way to understand choice.)

Now recently I’ve been reading through Excusing Sinners and Blaming God by Guillaume Bignon, which has resulted in me thinking more about free will and I think I’ve got a thought experiment that addresses the point the LFW proponent made so many years ago.  Nothing of what I am about to say is derived directly from Bignon’s book, so don’t take this as a representation of any of his arguments, but I credit him with getting me thinking on the topic.  (Incidentally, you should definitely read his book.)

Suppose that you wake one morning to find yourself in a strange room.  It’s a square room with four white walls, ceiling, and floor.  No distinguishing markers anywhere.  Each of the walls has a single door set in the midpoint of the wall, and there is a sign in the exact center of the room saying: “Choose a room.”  You check each of the doors and discover that each of them leads to a room that is, to all appearances, identical to the one that you are in right now.

Suppose you pick one of the doors and go through it.  You are presented with the same choice there, so once more you pick another door and go through it (or perhaps you return to the original room).  You can even choose not to pick another room and just sit where you are at.  The question is, after all is said and done and you pick your final room: Is your choice of room a “real” choice?

I would suspect the majority of LFW proponents would say “yes.”  There are five options to pick from each time: you could go through any of the four doors or stay where you are.  And if you define the room you wake up in as the Origin of (0,0), you can supply (x,y) coordinates to even map it out.  Clearly, going forward through the door on your defined x-axis is different from going through a door on the y-axis or in the opposite direction.  So at the end of the day, when you’re done choosing to go through whatever doors you pick, you have indeed selected the room you are in, whether that room is (7,2) or (-4,-301) or anything in between, on the map you have created.

But suppose at this point I tell you that the room you are in is on a rolling platform, such that when you walk forward you are not moving in space but instead the room moves around you.  The walls behind you drop off and loop around to reappear on the other side, so when you go through, say, the North door of the room you are actually re-entering the same room via the South door.  And the same is true for East and West.  Thus, no matter what door you go through, you are always still in the exact same room.  Now if I ask you, "Did you choose what room you are in?" I suspect every LFW proponent will say, “No.”  There were no actual options, so while it felt like you had a choice, you did not actually have a choice.  You are in the same room no matter what door (or no door) you picked.

At this point, suppose I then say, “You are either in a room such as I just described, or you are in a large set of interlinked identical-looking, but actually distinct, rooms like you originally thought.  But I am not going to tell you which one it is.  Did you choose what room you are in?”  I do not believe someone who holds to LFW could give an answer at this point.  He can only say, “Maybe yes, maybe no.  I need more information to tell.”

But if someone takes this path, note that they are saying that whether or not a choice is “real” has nothing to do with the subjective experience that a choice was made, for the subjective experience is the same in all three scenarios.  In this view, the only thing that can differentiate between whether a choice is real or illusory is the objective reality behind the scenes that, in the instance of the third scenario, it is impossible for the chooser to know.

Let me say that again: On this view, whether or not a choice happens is not dependent upon the one choosing, but rather upon objective reality that the chooser may never be aware of.

So let me add yet another scenario.  Suppose that what is really happening is that there is a network of linked rooms, each of which could loop back around so someone would not be able pass through it, or it could be set to allow someone to pass through to another room.  Suppose that if I flip a switch, as you went from (0,0) toward (1,0) you actually would go to (1,0) as you had chosen; but if I had flipped a different switch you would never have left (0,0).  I control the behavior of the rooms, but you don’t know how much of an influence I am.

Perhaps I didn’t put any influence in at all.  I may have kept the switches set so that you could go to any room you want.  Or perhaps any time you sought to increase on the y-axis, I flipped the switch, so that you thought you went to room (4,13), but you are really at (4,0).  You chose the x-axis, but I chose the y-axis.  Or perhaps I made sure you never left (0,0) or that once you got to (3,-2) you would never leave that room.  I can choose when to flip the switches and how to do so, but you don’t know how much of an influence I am making.  You only know that I could be influencing it, if I wanted to.

How real is your choice now?  Again, I’d say a LFW proponent would have to answer, “I don’t know.”  And what this would show is that whether or not your choice of room is “real” doesn’t just not depend on you, it does depend on me.  In this scenario, I have the power to make your choice real or illusory, but you are not able to do so yourself!  And to top it all off, you have no way of knowing how much—if any—influence I have actually put into which room you chose, because your subjective choices feel the same whether I interfere behind the scenes or not.  Given all this, not only can I determine if your choices are “real”, only I can even know if they are “real”.  You cannot tell the difference between real choices and illusory choices.

But there’s one final scenario we can examine, and that’s the scenario where I am able to influence what room you pick exactly the same way as the scenario we just examined...but I never tell you that I am able to do so.  Under this final scenario, you may think that you have gone to room (21,96) because that is the path you took and at no point did you ever consider that anything behind the scenes might be altering what you subjectively experienced.  If I ask you if your choice was real, you would say “Yes” because it never entered into your mind that it could have been anything other than that.  If I ask how you know that you picked the room you are in, you might very well reason: “I could have picked a different room, if I had wanted to do so.  Any of them were a valid option.  Therefore, since I picked this room, then it was my choice.”  You would never question whether or not the alternatives were ever real.

It should be clear now that to assume that the alternatives that you think are there actually are there begs the question.  It is circular reasoning.  The LFW proponent must establish how they can know those alternatives could have been actualized, not just assume they could have, because clearly the subjective feeling that they might have been able to do so is not enough to warrant belief that they really could have done so.  The upshot is that I think if you are an LFW proponent then on LFW grounds it is foolish to ever say a choice is real, because there’s no way to prove whether any alternatives ever could have been actualized.  On LFW grounds, we can only say, “Subjectively, I feel that I made the choice.”

Which, of course, is the same thing said under determinism.


  1. 1) Surely, they did make a choice, but they had no control over the conditions of the choice, and there are always conditions. If there are no clues as to direction in the room, a person has no idea which door they are choosing. If you say "north" or "east", then perhaps they have a compass. Otherwise, there is no way to distinguish one door from the next. The choice would be purely random.

    2) Let's say there were something to distinguish the doors. Maybe they were each a different color. This would give a preferential factor for determining a person's choice. If the one who made the room, knew which color would incite the person to choose, then the one who made the room could determine which choice the person made although the person would ultimately choose of the their own accord.

    3) Even if a person gave it the kind of thought that Vizzini from the Princess Bride did in choosing which cup to drink from, there is also the possibility that the doors would each lead to the same room, just as both cups were poisoned.

    4) Or even if the person gave it Vizziniesque thought, if the one who made the room knew the person's thoughts in such detail as to know which door the person would choose after all that machination then the door chosen would still be determined by both the builder and the person whether the doors ultimately go to them same place or not.

    One final observation: The CDO (Coulda Done Otherwise) argument is epistemologically unknowable. A person will always make one choice. Whatever choice it is, from whatever mental machinations that person goes through, will never know if they would have chosen otherwise given identical conditions. If a person returns after having made one choice and makes a different choice to prove it could have been done, he has effectively changed the conditions in order to do so: "I clearly could not have chosen the same door since I chose that one last time".

    1. Hi Jim! Thanks for your thoughts. I agree 100% with everything you said in your last paragraph :-) But, one quibble. You started with "Surely, they did make a choice" but that is the question being examined here ;-)

      Now, I personally hold to the view that if you *think* you have made a choice, then you have made a choice, because I don't think that PAP is needed for there to be a choice; rather, you only need to have THOUGHT you could have chosen something else. So I would agree that surely, a person in this experiment made a choice under every scenario, but that would beg the question against PAP, so anyone holding to PAP would have no reason to agree that "Surely, they did make a choice."

      One thing I would add is that I intentionally avoided using any language about moral responsibility. That is, I'm not saying whether anyone waking up in any of these scenarios would be blameworthy for their choice of room, because this is focused just on the question of "Does there need to be an objective alternative for a choice to be considered real, or is the subjective belief that there is an alternative, even when there objectively is no alternative, sufficient to establish that a choice was made?"

      The reason why this distinction is relevant is, as you allude to in your final paragraph, because at the end of the day it is IMPOSSIBLE for us to know if our choices have objective grounding or only subjective grounding, so if we maintain that a choice is only real if it is objective then we have no reason to ever say that a choice is real.

      To put it another way, every time someone argues against determinism by promoting PAP, what he is really saying is, "If you assume there is no determinism, then we can prove there is no determinism." Which isn't helpful to say the least...