free will, part one

Calling all philosophers!  [Cue Rodin’s The Thinker searchlight-figure cutting through the Gotham night.]

Suppose that C, as a brutely probabilistic matter, has a 50% chance of causing/producing E1 and an equal chance of causing/producing E2.  Now suppose that condition K causes the E1-as-against-E2 probability to shift, say, to 80/20.  And suppose that, with condition K holding, E1 happens. Because the causation is probabilistic, this event is not causally determined (or necessitated).  However, that E1 happened (is what C caused/produced rather than E2) is partially explained by condition K holding.  So that E1 happened (is what C caused) is not random (not causally random or causally unexplained).

If this is right, then, at least as a conceptual matter, events, including intentional action, might be non-determined yet also non-random.  This is important if you think that intentional action could not be causally necessitated and also could not be causally random (on pain of not counting as intentional action or as an exercise of free will).  However, if this third category of non-determined-yet-non-random events is coherent, then we have a basic metaphysical framework sufficient for conceptually (and, along with some other elements, perhaps empirically or as-an-actually-existing-thing) vindicating free will.

The idea that there is no such third category here seems to enjoy quite a bit of currency in philosophical circles (e.g., Nomy Arpaly) and also naturalist/physicalist/atheist popular intellectual circles (e.g., Yuval Harari).  If I’m right here, the clear-headed naturalist should not be throwing out free will from conceptual jump street.

Does my proposal work?  To what extent is it original?

(Irfan reminds me that Robert Nozick has a somewhat similar proposal in his book, Philosophical Explanations.  I’m working through the relevant bits of that.  So far, Nozick’s view seems sloppily in the same ballpark, but not clearly similar enough to be the same proposal.)

(I have two related thoughts that I am saving for later – hence ‘part one’ in the heading.  One is around the idea of causal randomness being incompatible with free will.  Why think this?  The other builds on the above model, adding a copy-generation-and-selection mechanism, to create a model of how you could get causal sequences tuned to specific, initially-improbable outcomes without something akin to a miracle.  These two thoughts turn out to be connected via the idea of mental, rationalizing causation being both at the heart of free will and a particular kind of functional or goal causation.  But first things first.)

10 thoughts on “free will, part one

  1. Three quick points.

    First: the position I was likening to Nozick’s was a view you expressed elsewhere (on email) that took a slightly different form than this post, and struck me as being more like Nozick’s view than what you say here.

    Second, your example here is so abstractly put that it functions more like a set of stipulations than a concrete example. In other words, the example is no different from saying, “Let’s assume ex hypothesi that a certain condition C explains a shift in the probabilities of the occurrence of certain events…” Someone might accept that stipulation ex hypothesi without really knowing what it meant to accept it. (In which predicament I stand.) So I think I need an example to understand your example!

    Third, free will is usually thought to entail the agent’s control over a decision, but since there’s no obvious role for control in your account, it’s not clear how the account is relevant to free will. The sheer existence of your third category does not, by itself, make the account relevant to free will. Not-determined-but-not-random is still a long way from controlled by the agent. And control is essential.

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    • Irfan, agreed on points (1) and 3). On (2), I think the conceptual/schematic point is pretty clear – and all it is meant to function as is a conceptual/schematic point, to rebut the idea that an event not being causally determined (it being such that there are alternative possibilities that might arise from the same initial conditions) entails that that event is random in the sense of lacking a causal explanation of why it occurred (rather than one of the other alternatives).


  2. As I’ve written here before, I’m sympathetic to the idea that causes needn’t (and perhaps typically don’t) necessitate their effects. But — and I think this might just be a version of Irfan’s second point — I don’t know that we can show that this is really possible just by describing the possibility. I’m not sure what you say here is even enough to show that it’s conceptually possible. Why think that probabilities are anything more than epistemic, say? From my limited perspective, it seems to me that enough people have elaborated versions of the idea that causation isn’t deterministic (i.e., necessitating) that opponents cannot simply assume that the only options are determinism or randomness. But we have to do a lot more work to show that not-determined-but-not-random events really are a conceptual possibility. I find it plausible enough that I don’t find most arguments I encounter against free will at all compelling, but it’s still hard to entirely shake the idea that, if we look carefully enough, a fully adequate causal explanation of an event will have to identify a set of conditions such that, if they obtain, the explanandum must as well.

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    • David, I could put my point here in conditional form: if there are objective probabilities (such that we might get more than one result from the same fully-specified) initial conditions, then it is coherent to claim that the outcome in fact produced is non-random (that there is a causal explanation of why this as against that possibility was realized). So it is conceptually possible that there are non-determined but non-random events. And by ‘random’ I mean something quite particular, but it seems to me like the relevant thing: there is no causal explanation for why this rather than that possibility is realized. On this meaning of ‘random’, objective indeterminacy can seem to entail randomness and so the either-determined-or-random exhaustive dichotomy seems sensible. (But maybe this is not what folks who make this quick argument against the coherence and existence of free will mean by ‘random’? I’m certainly open to this possibility.)

      There is also the claim that we think of free will as inherently acausal (so, if you are a clear-headed naturalist, you will deny that there really is such a thing as free will; Arpaly makes this claim). I took this to be an expression of the idea that there is no causal explanation of why this as against that possibility is realized – and so just another way of describing the randomness feature. But I suppose people might mean something different by ‘acausal’ (maybe the idea is that agential control over which possibility is realized in intentional action – something that my schematic model is silent about – is inherently acausal). So maybe there are two distinct ideas here. If so, I’m only addressing the indeterminancy-entails-randomness point (and its seeming continued intellectual currency). I’m somewhat worried that my point is rather simple and works fine, but is kinda old hat (maybe others have proposed something similar to my model to illustrate the coherence of the neither-determined-nor-random category).

      Does any of that help?


      • Michael,

        I think David and I are agreeing here–i.e., agreeing on point (2) that I made in my first comment. I think our points can be put together in the following way:

        You’re asking whether your proposal is “coherent.” Well, “coherence” has a minimal and a more-than-minimal interpretation. The minimal interpretation is: claims are coherent if they are consistent. Your proposal passes that test: we get what you’re saying, and no one proposition you’ve asserted contradicts any other. Maybe you mean that if the antecedent is granted, no contradiction is involved in inferring the consequent. Fair enough.

        But the more-than-minimal interpretation of coherence is that claims are coherent if they consistently hang together in a mutually explanatory (not necessarily mutually entailing) way. Your proposal doesn’t pass that test (or fail it) because there’s not enough material there to count as coherent in that sense: there’s no way to evaluate the “coherence” of “if p, then it’s coherent to infer q” if all that we have to go on is that “q doesn’t contradict p, so maybe p entails q.”

        In a previous (private) iteration of this conversation, your example was the decay of a sample of uranium. In that case, if the process of decay is described as “objectively probabilistic,” then I agree that the decay is ex hypothesi both non-deterministic and non-random. In that case, I would say that the non-random character of the decay is causally explained by the structure of the uranium itself. I guess that’s a coherent thought, but the problem is, it’s not clear to me that the decay of a sample of uranium is a good example of an objectively probabilistic process. (I wouldn’t know.) Whether it is or not, it’s not a good model for thinking about free will.

        I don’t know what you think about the uranium example, but I guess I’d say that it’s hard to think about the category you have in mind without having some actual (or worked-out thought experimental) exemplification of it. As it stands, your question is like asking, “Isn’t it coherent to think that an anarchist society could have all the benefits of a statist society and none of the disadvantages”? Well, I guess it is, at least in the minimal sense of “coherent,” but I find it hard to picture in any sense beyond that. Same thing here.

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        • Thanks for the reply, Irfan.


          (a) I think I’m happy with your minimal coherence. I think this is all that we need for coherent speculation (and hence the conceptual possibility of causal outcomes being indeterminate-but-non-random).

          (b) Explanatory coherence would, I think, be a more appropriate condition for an candidate empirical hypothesis of some sort.

          (c) My model is schematic and speculative, for sure. But all I’m doing is saying that, starting with a familiar take on objective indeterminacy (alternative possibilities with some probability distribution over them), we can get a causal why-this-alternative-is-realized-rather-than-that sort of causal explanation – and hence the relevant sort of non-randomness – if we add a condition that effects, or sufficiently effects, the probability distribution, tilting the tables in favor of one alternative over the others. (A certain kind of work needs to get done if we are to have an indeterminate process in which it is explained why this rather than that possibility if realized – and I provide a coherent, speculative schematic picture of how this work could get done. But maybe the world is nothing like this! As you point out, for all you or I really know, determinism is true. Again, quite happy to admit this!)

          (d) ADDED LATER (EDIT) Final point that might need clarifying. In either the schematic case or the uranium-235 atom decay (interpreted as indeterministic), without the additional condition tilting the probability toward the possibility that is realized, the outcome is random in that there is no causal explanation of why one alternative possibility rather than another was realized. The outcome is caused (by the structure of the uranium atom) and it is caused in accordance with a brutely probabilistic law of nature (and is in this sense non-random in that there is a particular way in which a uranium-235 atom can and cannot decay). I’m open to the idea that the important sense of ‘random’ here is the anti-nomological one, not the one according to which there is no explanation of why this as against that alternative possibility is realized.

          Maybe we are reaching as much of a meeting of the minds here as is realistic? Maybe last comments then on to “free will, part two.”


          • Well, I guess put that way, (a)-(c) are hard to argue with.

            On (d), I would just say that if you grant this…

            The outcome is caused (by the structure of the uranium atom) and it is caused in accordance with a brutely probabilistic law of nature (and is in this sense non-random in that there is a particular way in which a uranium-235 atom can and cannot decay)

            …the outcome is not random, full stop. The conjunction of the two factors you’ve cited explains the outcome. You seem to be distinguishing between appealing to the preceding explanation of the outcome, and a contrastive explanation that explains the further fact of why a different outcome doesn’t obtain. But I’d have thought that a causal explanation for an outcome implies the negation of an incompatible outcome.

            I guess this is complicated a little by your reference to “brutely probabilistic laws of nature.” If there were such laws, I suppose they’d have the form: “If condition(s) C & C* & C** (etc.) obtain, then events E1 or E2 obtain with (say) equal probability,” there being no further deterministic cause producing E1 when it obtains, or E2 when it does. So what you’re calling randomness consists in there not being a causal explanation for E1 rather than E2 or vice versa. I guess we’re not allowed to regard the “brutely probabilistic law of nature” as explaining the contrast? Why doesn’t the law itself explain why E1 happens rather than E2?

            Are there “brutely probabilistic laws of nature” or is that a purely thought-experimental possibility? If there aren’t such laws, appealing to them just re-locates the problem I had the first time around: we can claim to conceive “brutely probabilistic laws of nature,” but since it’s unclear what they really are, it’s unclear what rules of inference apply when we talk about them. That’s the reason for my reluctance to grant your claims.

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          • I think we are mostly on the same page, Irfan. I pretty much take it on authority that there are brutely indeterministic laws of nature (and that they apply to certain small-scale and perhaps laws-of-quantum-mechanics-described events like radioactive decay). And I haven’t made any explicit argument for the no-explanation-why-this-possibility-rather-than-that sense of ‘random’ being the relevant one. But it is easy enough conditionalize my claims in these respects. Distinct point: I don’t think a probabilistic law explaining that this possibility happened (or that one of n-number of possibilities are the only ones that could happen) also provides an explanation of why this-as-against-that happened. Maybe we still differ on that point or maybe there are different senses of ‘explanation’ (or ‘causal explanation’) at work for each of us.

            Tomorrow I’ll try to hammer out ‘free will – part two’. I’ll be concerned with the claim that, if intentional actions are random then they are not genuinely intentional (or they are intentional only in a deflationary sense such that they are not genuinely “free” in the relevant sense). I think this claim is true, but needs to be clarified and justified not simply assumed.

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            • Well, I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that quantum indeterminacy gets us anywhere on free will, but (a) lots of people seem to think it does, (b) lots of people know more about it than I do, and (c) I know nothing about it. Same with the idea of a probabilistic law.

              Looking forward to part 2.

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    • Irfan and David, I realize that I have not addressed, at least not directly, your worries that my model is either unclear (or under-specified) and coherent (or successfully demonstrating the the relevant thing is conceptually possible). I can do that later, but I’ll hold off until after you guys respond (or not) to my replies so far.


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