This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.
I acknowledge that this entry is about a topic which is rather peripheral insofar as the abortion debate is concerned. However, I contend that it is relevant. If choice-talk can only be metaphorical and is invalid if taken literally, then the pro-choice position, which is articulated around choice-talk, is also invalid. Any anti-abortion reasoning which relies on getting women to make the “right” choice (presumably, to start new human lives) is also invalid.
No one speaks of the free will of a rock or a tree. This is because we associate free will with minds. We think a mind is something special that deserves to be given a special label, therefore we stick a label of “free will” on it. Free will is the notion that a being can make choices by picking one of many possible options, which we can express as such:
Given five options A, B, C, D and E, an agent with free will could choose between any of these options, and it is through conscious internal deliberation that the agent finally commits to one of them (say, A).
This is an illusion founded in the fact that we are able to observe our own minds and its conflicting processes. We then extrapolate that other human beings think in the same general way we do, thus we extrapolate free will.
But there is no reason to believe that the matter which generates our minds is magically not subject to the laws of nature, to deterministic behavior. It is naive for us to believe that, because we subjectively experience the mind as something that makes choices, we have therefore objectively proven that the matter that generates it must somehow be exempt from determinism. In the same way, there’s no reason that our (subjective) perception of red logically entails that there must be something red in our brains (for the sake of labels, let’s call this position pro-neural-redness).
A lot of this has to do with the difference between what we can imagine and what is possible. People think that because they can imagine a concept “God,” that therefore such a concept must be possible. People think that because they can imagine themselves taking a different decision than they took, that such an action must therefore be possible. But being able to imagine something in our heads does not prove possibility. I can equally imagine a square-circle, spirits of the dead, that Thomas Jefferson was the first rapper, or that I really renamed my blog “The Primordial Directive.” But none of these things are possible, because they didn’t happen or cannot happen.
The account of choice given to us by [metaphysical] libertarians (advocates of the position that free will is true and that therefore determinism is false) is based on nothing but such imaginings. But imaginings are not evidence, especially when pitted against our ever-expanding understand of how everything around us is moved by natural law. The naive account of choice that I gave above does not stand up to the evidence, as neuroscience finds more and more that our decisions are subconscious and that our consciousness mainly serves to rationalize them.
A libertarian may argue that the vast variety of responses in different humans proves that they all have free will. But this is a vast exaggeration: the competing interests and impulses in the human brain, in short the complexity of the human brain, ensure a variety of responses, but not free will. If variety of responses alone ensured free will, then no one would dispute that computers have free will; indeed, the fact that we are sure computers do not have free will, despite the fact that we are just as “programmed” as computers, is in itself a powerful argument against free will. But most importantly, the variety of human responses does not prove that any single human individual has free will, only, at best, that the human species has free will, but no such entity actually exists.
Determinism proves that the concept of choice is only, at best, a metaphor for what is really going in the mind, the competing interests and impulses that help a brain formulate courses of action. The literal reality is that:
[A]s little as a ball on a billiard table can move before receiving an impact, so little can a man get up from his chair before being drawn or driven by a motive. But then his getting up is as necessary and inevitable as the rolling of a ball after the impact. And to expect that anyone will do something to which absolutely no interest impels them is the same as to expect that a piece of wood shall move toward me without being pulled by a string.
Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Freedom of the Will
While I think Schopenhauer is reaching a bit insofar as comparing the simple and easily predicted mechanistic behavior of a billiard ball with the complex and more unpredictable mechanistic behavior of a brain, his evaluation is entirely correct. Human beings, like rocks, trees, birds and computers, act in accordance with their nature. Nothing more, nothing less.
Physics – the realm of scientific description and exploration of way the universe works, using mathematics as its tool – describes how all matter and energy interact. Without dualism – that is, without believing that there is something fundamentally different about consciousness, something that can’t be described by the mere interactions of matter and energy – it makes no sense to talk about choice for people, but not for other collections of matter.
Choice-talk, like God-talk, is an artefact of language, the same clumsy language that meaninglessly forces us to talk about “my arm” or “my foot.” We routinely say that “I may choose to do this or that,” but this is really a statement of probabilities, which is the result of limitations on our knowledge, not of choice, in the same way that predicting the weather relies on probabilities (it may be as difficult to predict our future behavior as it is to predict future weather, but that doesn’t make meteorological phenomena uncaused). We don’t literally make a choice between many different alternatives and we could not literally have chosen otherwise.
So what does all of this abstract thinking have to do with abortion? As the name indicates, the pro-choice position has choice as its central concept, that women should be allowed to choose between abortion and childbirth. But this can only be possible in a metaphorical sense; in a literal sense, women take a decision based on the amount of pro-choice or anti-abortion indoctrination they were the victim of, their financial and psychological situation, their relationship situation, and most importantly their values as moderators of the importance of all these factors. They, like in every other decision, have no “choice,” no alternate futures.
Either the pro-choice position is literally based on choice, in which case the pro-choice position must be deluded (in the same way that we would say a pro-neural-redness advocate is deluded), or it is metaphorically based on choice, in which case we must ask what the metaphor really refers to. Does it refer to the normal way in which we use the metaphor as referring to the variety of actions, or in this case, the fact that some women have abortions and some don’t? But the fact that some people do something and others do the opposite has no obvious ethical consequences, so you can’t base an ethical position on that. Do they mean that whatever women do should be protected? But this merely pushes back the problem on the people who are doing the “protecting,” who presumably must choose to do so as well. At this point, I think the pro-choice advocate has to fall back to “reproductive rights” instead and forget about “choice” altogether.