Stoicism and Free Will

It has taken me a while to get around to reading Aaron Smith’s piece on Stoicism at the Ayn Rand Institute, which Roderick Long posted about already, but now that I’ve done so, I want to make a few comments.

What interests me particularly is Smith’s treatment of free will and determinism. It seems to me that Smith makes some common errors with regard to these, and it will help me to refine my own thinking on them a bit to comment on his remarks. I also think he somewhat misconstrues the impact of the Stoics’ determinism on their ethical philosophy. I should say that this is not hard to do. For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, and when I started out, my interpretation was not so very different from Smith’s. But over time I have come to see—or so it seems to me—that their determinism has actually rather little impact on their ethics. It certainly is not the dominating influence that Smith makes it out to be. Or so I shall argue.

One further preliminary. I make no particular claim that my interpretation of Stoicism is the one that is most consistent with their writings. This would be difficult, because what we have of their writings is in an abysmal state. It is true that we have substantial texts by the later Stoics Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and (sort of) Epictetus, but the theoretical value of these works is, in my opinion, low. The writings of the more important earlier Stoics, especially Chrysippus, are almost entirely lost, and we are dependent on secondary sources for what they said. Moreover, there were many Stoic philosophers, and we should not expect them all to have said exactly the same things. In any event, what interests me most is the logic of their position and how it can be made most consistent and sensible (and yet still recognizably Stoic). It is always better to “Steel Man” another’s view, not Straw Man it. So that’s the spirit of what follows.

The Stoics were hard determinists, so hard that they believed in a theory of “eternal recurrence,” according to which the entire course of the universe down to the last detail would be repeated in cycles forever. So, the exact path of every raindrop down a window, every blink of your eyes, and every thought you ever have will be repeated an infinite number of times in the future—and of course have already happened an infinite number of times in the past. Accordingly, they did not believe in free will.

There seem to be two basic motivations for denying free will. One is to deny responsibility for our actions. This motivation seems to be more popular than philosophical. In any event, most determinist philosophers seem to have the second motivation, which is taking intelligible causation seriously. A cause is intelligible only to the extent that it explains why the event in question had to happen. Any leeway or wiggle room in the event—any aspect that is not determined by the cause—is left still unexplained. So, to hold that every event in the universe is fully intelligible commits you to determinism. This is why Spinoza, for example, was a determinist, and it’s why the Stoics were determinists. They held that the universe is fully rational and intelligible. Everything happens for a reason, no exceptions. The universe is governed by logic, which they identified with God. God and Nature itself are one and the same (again, like Spinoza), and they are rational. We are rational too, which is why we can understand the world.

But if determinism is true and everything you will ever do has been laid down before you were even born, then what is the effing point? Isn’t it true, as Smith says, that “Stoic philosophy leaves us with no power to impact events”? And that, “strictly speaking, nothing is up to us”? And in that case isn’t Smith right to ask, “what use is [Stoic advice] or anyone’s advice for that matter”?

I think the Stoics can provide pretty good answers to these questions. Let’s start with the “what’s the use?” question, since I suspect this is the main sticking point. If the action you take in any situation or the outcome in any scenario is fated in advance, then what is the point of bothering about it? After all, what you will do and how things will turn out will be the same either way, so why should you concern yourself about it? The answer is, because the outcome matters and because you don’t know in advance what it will be. (Strictly speaking, for the Stoics the outcome actually does not matter—for reasons having nothing to do with their determinism. But for them your action does matter, which amounts to the same thing for present purposes. I will ignore this quibble from here on.) It may be true that if you could know for certain in advance what will happen, like Oedipus and the Oracle foretelling some of his actions, then you may as well sit back and watch events unfold. But this is never our situation. Therefore, since you do not know what the outcome will be in any situation you face, you have a reason to do anything that will raise the epistemic probability of events unfolding in accordance with your preferences.

For example, suppose you have a rotten tooth that is causing you excruciating pain. Assuming you are a determinist, would it be rational to say, “My toothache will either be cured or not, and it is fated either way, so I’ll just sit here and eventually find out which!”? Clearly not. Although the outcome may be fated either way, you don’t know which way. But you do know that, if your tooth is going to be fixed, the causal agency of its fixing is most likely to run through your own actions. It is much more likely to get fixed, and much faster, if you go to the dentist than if you just sit on the couch waiting. Therefore, you have a reason in this case to go to the dentist. The fact that you are a determinist does not change that.

Thus, Smith is wrong to suggest that a determinist has no use for anyone’s advice. The more knowledge you have of the world, and the more wisdom you have concerning effective decision making and action, the more efficacious you will be at steering events in beneficial directions. This is a mere truism, and the (supposed) fact of predetermination does nothing to change it.

Indeed, as a thinking human agent, you are an important channel of causation in the world around you. Imagine a robot with a central controller. The controller is, let us say, a processor equipped with data about the world around it and programs for its guidance and decision making. Clearly, the controller will be more efficacious the more powerful it is, and the better its data and programming. We do not have to suppose that the controller has “free will” in order for this to be true. Moreover, the controller has a kind of “agency” in that it processes information and decides what course of action the robot will take. The alternatives it decides between are far more sophisticated than those of a rock rolling down a hill. That’s why we call it a “controller.” Of course, that doesn’t make it free. The point of talking about a robot with an onboard controller is just to emphasize that it is not free. But it hardly follows that the quality of the “advice” (data and programming) it gets makes no difference.

Thus, Smith is also wrong to suppose that Stoicism leaves us with no power to impact events. We do impact events, just as the robot does. We do not change what is predetermined, but we impact events in the sense that the causation of events is channeled through us. And again, since we do not know what is predetermined, we have a reason—just because we are an important channel of causation—to exert ourselves to be as knowledgeable and wise and good as we can.

Smith cites the unfortunate image of the dog tied to a cart. A dog tied to a cart goes along with the cart willy-nilly. The choice the dog has is to trot along willingly or be dragged. According to the Stoics (supposedly—the passage was written by a Christian opponent of the Stoics over 400 years after the writers he is attacking were dead), the human situation is no different. The only power we have is in our attitude toward the inevitable course of events. Namely, we can be complacent or resentful, but we can have no impact on what will happen, so we may as well be complacent. As should be clear by now, in my view nearly everything about this image is wrong. First, it presents us as passive spectators of events, dragged along uninvolved like a dog tied to a cart. But the truth is that we are agents that are causally involved in generating the course of events. We are more like the cart than the dog. Moreover, in the sense in which we have no choice about things—that our actions are not free—that goes for our attitude as much as anything else. For the Stoics, our souls are as deterministic as anything else. So the idea, which Smith alludes to repeatedly, that for the Stoics our souls (and thus our attitudes, judgments, values, etc.) might be “up to us” (i.e., free) although our actions are not, will not do in my opinion.

If the dog-and-cart image were correct, then we would be passive spectators not only of events around us, but even of our own actions. This would seem to imply that the morally perfect Stoic Sage might, for example, be a criminal! Raised in a bad household, perhaps, the individual grows up to be a murderous robber, but having read Stoic philosophy, his soul trots complacently beside the “cart” of his murders and robberies, reflecting that he is powerless to influence the course of events and must accept whatever comes. But this is quite contrary to Stoic doctrine. The Stoics believed that it matters very much what you do, and they held that the Sage always acts with perfect propriety. The Stoic Sage therefore would never murder or rob anyone (barring exceptional circumstances in which that would actually be appropriate). The actions of the Sage are always morally perfect because his wisdom and knowledge are perfect. That is what makes him a Sage. He is not a dog tied to a cart but a robot with a perfectly programmed and informed and functioning controller.

Still, there may be a nagging question as to why anything matters if everything is fated in advance. Why does it matter whether you are a Sage and do only appropriate actions, if this is predetermined and you cannot change it? It matters because it is good. A Sage functions well and is happy, and that is better than to function poorly and be unhappy. Think of the beauty of a newly opened flower or of a healthy, powerful tiger. These are good, and we can appreciate and admire them for that. And this is so even though it was predetermined. The flower and the tiger have no free will, they are not the ultimate causes of their goodness, and in that sense they are not responsible for it, but their goodness exists and is worthwhile all the same. Likewise, you cannot change your destiny or become a Sage if it is not predetermined that you will be one. But since you cannot know that you will not be one, and since it is much better to be one than not—indeed, since for the Stoics nothing matters other than being a Sage—you have reason to hope to be one and to expend every ounce of energy in the attempt.

51 thoughts on “Stoicism and Free Will

  1. I’m surprised that you describe the Stoics as hard determinists. I’ve always taken them to be the earliest clear cases of soft determinists.

    Maybe our disagreement depends on the definition of “free will.” I take free will to mean “whatever sort of control we need to have over our actions in order to count as being morally responsible for them.” And then compatibilists and incompatibilists disagree about what kind of control that is or involves.

    By that standard, I think the Stoics definitely count as believing in free will (compatibilist style), though their distinctive difference from other compatibilists is that the only thing we have free-will control over is our giving assent to or withholding assent from various normative judgments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m afraid I shouldn’t have used the term “hard determinist,” because I wasn’t thinking about the issue of compatibilism. I only meant that they think everything is predetermined down to the last detail, in the way I described. Sorry for the imprecision!

      We do seem to disagree about the term “free will,” though. I think of it as metaphysical. “Freedom” as I use it means the ability to initiate causes.

      By the way, one of the earliest philosophical efforts of which I am not now ashamed was a paper on the Stoic conception of causation, inspired by Michael Frede’s paper on “The Original Notion of Cause.” That paper is now regarded as a classic, but it was only a year after it was published that I wrote that student paper. I argued that the Stoics could have developed from their entity-based conception of causation a conception of the human mind as an initiator of action not predetermined by any antecedent causes. They had the conceptual apparatus available that would have enabled them to do this, but alas they didn’t. The idea of Fate was more important to them (or so I speculated).

      Like

      • A “freedom” refers to the absence of some meaningful and relevant constraint. We don’t notice freedom, but we do experience a constraint, and we notice when the constraint is lifted. So, freedom is meaningless unless it implicitly or explicitly references a constraint.

        For example, we set the bird free (from its cage), we enjoy freedom of speech (free of political censorship), the slaves were set free (of their masters), or a subject volunteers to participate in Benjamin Libet’s experiments of his own free will (free of coercion and undue influence).

        “Freedom from reliable causation” is an irrational concept, because every freedom we have, to do anything at all, requires reliable cause and effect (without reliable cause and effect we cannot reliably cause any effect). So, the notion of “freedom from causation” is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. Therefore, philosophy must abandon “freedom from causal necessity” as its definition of free will.

        “Causal necessity/inevitability” is neither a meaningful nor a relevant constraint. It is not meaningful because what we inevitably do is exactly what we would have done anyway. It is not relevant because there is nothing that can be (or needs to be) done about it.

        Pragmatism suggests that we avoid confusion by using the operational definition of our concepts. In operation, free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion and undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command, etc.). That is the definition used in practical scenarios of moral and legal responsibility. It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no claims against reliable causation. And most people understand and correctly use the operational definition is practical real world scenarios.

        Philosophy needs to clean up its act. There is no conflict between causal necessity/inevitability and the operational definition of free will. The sense that there is a conflict results from a number of mental errors, believable but false suggestions that create a paradox. It is a bit of a hoax that philosophy has played upon itself.

        Like

  2. “Smith cites the unfortunate image of the dog tied to a cart. A dog tied to a cart goes along with the cart willy-nilly. The choice the dog has is to trot along willingly or be dragged.”

    Are you saying that Smith put the cart before the dog? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did not read the part of Smith’s article about the dog and cart before my previous post. So I read it moments ago, and saw that Smith was only using the model of Zeno and Chrysippus. It presumably has the cart pulling the dog, with something else pulling the cart. A different model would be the dog in front of and pulling the cart (with nothing pulling the dog). The dog can go where it wants, just not quite as freely as without the cart. So they are two very different models.

      Like

  3. This is peripheral to the main point of your post, but I’m interested to hear more about this:

    For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, …

    I wouldn’t dream of doing that. For one thing, as you say, “what we have of their writings is in an abysmal state.” For another…I just wouldn’t.

    I have a self-described Stoic colleague who insists on teaching Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius in his moral philosophy classes, but then, you’d expect a Stoic to grin and bear his way through things like that. Twenty years ago, I used to teach Cicero’s De Officiis in an ordinary moral philosophy class, but that was a different time and place, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why I would do such a thing.

    When you teach the Stoics, do “student learning outcomes” become a preferred indifferent?

    Actually, that probably holds no matter what one teaches. Surely, the Stoics still have important lessons to teach us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find it really useful to teach Aristotle and Stoicism in tandem, as ways of developing the Socratic paradigm in different directions. They’re close enough to each other that they challenge each other in interesting ways. There’s a strand in Aristotle that becomes Stoicism if you push it far enough (eudaimonia can’t be honour because “the good is something of our own and hard to take from us”) and a counter-strand that balances it (eudaimonia can’t be virtue, because a virtuous person could suffer “the greatest sufferings and misfortunes, and no one would call him happy unless he were determined to maintain a thesis”). The conflict between Aristoteleanism and Stoicism helps illuminate what’s at stake. Plus many of my students have already internalised Stoic ideas — they’re initially quite willing to say that one’s happiness depends solely on oneself, for example — even as they also believe much that goes utterly in the opposite direction.

      I also teach parts of De Officiis in business ethics because the whole third book is a set of case studies in business ethics.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Actually, jokes aside, what you say in your first four sentences was my rationale for teaching De Officiis (back in the day). I used to teach it in tandem with a unit on the Nicomachean Ethics, and the arrangement used to work pretty well. But that was at Notre Dame. I essentially stopped teaching both once I left. I think the last time I taught NE was 2010, and that was a one-off.

        I hadn’t thought of the point you make in your fifth sentence (“Plus many…”). As I think about it, that’s not just likely to be true of my students, but of me.

        I don’t think I’ve ever taught business ethics. We have it on the books in Philosophy, but it never runs. The Business School has a course on business law, but none on ethics. Is there even a connection between business and ethics? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. I thought business was about making money. What does that have to do with “ethics”?

        You’d think that the Admiral Stockdale angle would go over well at a “military friendly” school like mine, but I somehow intuit that it wouldn’t. Students who have been in combat are often too traumatized to talk about or deal with anything that reminds them of it, and students who haven’t often tune out the minute warfare is brought up (on the grounds that warfare has nothing to do with their major, therefore has nothing to do with their job prospects, therefore has nothing to do with anything). I used to do a unit on drone warfare in my ethics class, but I’ve decided to discontinue it. Which is ironic considering our recent situation re Iran.

        Part of the reason for my query is to figure out whether my students are typical or outliers.

        Like

    • I contrast Aristotle, Epicurus, the Cynics, and the Stoics, in a long segment taking about 40% of the semester. There’s a nice little dialogue by Dirk Baltzly that puts these four together, by the way. (http://hume.ucdavis.edu/mattey/phi143/ATAKTOS.HTM) For a reading on the Stoics, I use Cicero’s De Finibus and some selections from Epictetus.

      I guess I do this more because I am personally interested than for any other reason. My goal is just to get students thinking about different approaches to life and fundamental values. Frankly, I was beginning to think about changing it and maybe dropping the Stoics, but I have found these recent discussions stimulating enough that I’m reconsidering whether to do so. What I could use are some materials that make connections to contemporary life, like Roderick’s suggestion about Stockdale. I would welcome any further suggestions…

      Liked by 1 person

      • My comments were meant in more of a spirit of levity than may have come across. What I meant was: how do your students react to having to read the Stoics? I can’t imagine my students’ making it even a third of the way through the Baltzly dialogue. Do yours actually read it through and engage? Sounds like they do. Which sounds like a miracle.

        Does CCSF have a philosophy major? I assume that Auburn does. We don’t; it was discontinued by administrative decision in 2014. The Philosophy Dept is now mostly limited to teaching 100 and 200 level courses in the General Education Curriculum. It seems a lost cause to try to teach either Aristotle or the Stoics in this context. Sometimes it seems a lost cause to teach philosophy at all. But I rarely taught ancient texts at Felician even when we had a philosophy major.

        The irony is that when I’ve taught at Al Quds U in the West Bank, the Philosophy Dept there insisted that I cover “the major thinkers of the Western political tradition”–in my case, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, and Mill. I think my AQU colleagues would be baffled by what I regularly teach at Felician. But I wouldn’t dream of teaching my AQU course as a Gen Ed at Felician. I’d lose half of my enrollment by the end of drop/add.

        Like

        • We don’t have a major, but we’re in the process of getting one. We have a draft proposal written, but I assume it will take the wheels of bureaucracy a year to produce an approval. I don’t anticipate any resistance to the proposal, just the glacial pace of such developments.

          We don’t teach a large range of philosophy courses, and what we do teach is mostly pretty introductory. Nonetheless, in my intro courses I still teach Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Hume, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, etc. In fact, I teach almost exclusively that stuff. My other full-time colleague does likewise. I think many of the students do read the texts. My colleague gives weekly writing assignments on the texts, so his students must read them (or at least the assignment-related passages). (And he is a very popular teacher.) I don’t, so I can’t really tell how many of my students actually do the reading. Of course, some do, as evidenced by the questions they ask, the comments they make, the notes I see they’ve made, etc. Frankly, those are the students I care about, and if the others don’t do the reading, I don’t let it bother me.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I suspect that if 90% of your students were doing none of the reading ever (and the remaining 10% were only doing some of it some of the time), you’d notice. This 90/10 split has been my rule of thumb for the last decade or so. I like to pretend that it doesn’t bother me, but it almost always does.

            Like

            • It may be that City College has an advantage in being a city school. I suppose the modal student at City College is a San Francisco resident newly graduated from high school who either can’t afford to go straight to a university or who doesn’t really know what to do and so City College is the path of least resistance. It is absurdly inexpensive, especially for San Franciscans, and California encourages students to spend their first two years at a community college before moving on to a Cal State or UC university. So we get a lot of those.

              But also, we get a lot of older people who want to complete their educations or to supplement them with additional courses. A lot of people who are between jobs, or otherwise want something to do, veterans, etc. These are often really good students.

              Last semester I had a street person in my Epistemology class. Hard to estimate age, but probably 50–60. He wore three coats, no matter what the whether, and he didn’t wash very often. He carried with him everywhere four or five large plastic bags full of crap, apparently that he had scrounged off the street. I confess I didn’t look too hard at the contents, but I presume they were the total of his worldly possessions. But he was a registered student. He said very little in class, but he would sometimes email me after class with website links or queries or comments about whatever I had been talking about in class that day. He got an A.

              Liked by 1 person

              • That last story is hard to beat. I don’t have any analogue for it in my teaching career.

                You may be right about the advantages of a city school. When I taught at John Jay College in New York City, the students were unprepared for college work, but were far more engaged and motivated than my students at Felician. There is something numbing and tranquilizing about life in the Jersey suburbs, and I sometimes wonder whether that explains what I regularly encounter in the classroom. I mentioned this on Facebook: I’ve seen the same band perform on the same tour in both New York and New Jersey, and with stunning regularity, the Jersey crowd acts as though it’s hypnotized or on a very strong version of Xanax. I don’t know if the same factor could possibly be at work in both concert spaces and classrooms, but maybe it is.

                Actually, one of the things that is “numbing and tranquilizing about life in the Jersey suburbs” is pot, and my students smoke alarming quantities of it. I find it hard to believe that my students smoke more pot than anyone else’s, but maybe they do. This past semester I had a student explain (in a unit on drugs in an ethics class) that weed improves his driving, which is why he makes sure to toke up whenever he gets in the car. The class divided on the merits of this suggestion. That piece of wisdom was on par with the student who defended the idea of texting while driving by saying that she didn’t see the big deal: she’d already gotten into an accident while doing so, but the accident was covered by insurance, so…so what? I wish I could believe that a good, healthy dose of Marcus Aurelius would cure this, but I don’t.

                I wonder how far the “city” explanation goes. Though Felician is located in the suburbs, our student body is a mix of urban and suburban students; the suburban students tend to be better prepared than the urban, but motivationally, they’re really all the same. I’ve taught at other schools in New Jersey, both urban and suburban (2 year and 4 year), and have found students generally more engaged there than at Felician. (Confounding variable: time. I’ve been at Felician for twelve years, so maybe students have just changed over the last decade or so.)

                Our modal student is not that different from yours, except that what I encounter in mine is a pervasive cynicism about and hostility to the academic enterprise as such. The thought seems to be: “I’m in college to get a degree; I’m getting the degree because I need it to get the job I want; all of this would go a lot faster if you weren’t in the way with your stupid Gen Ed philosophy course; but you are; so let’s get this shit over with, OK?” Try as I might to accommodate all points of view, I find that one a turn off. In the case of student athletes, there are a few add-ons: what they’re doing on the playing field is wayyyy more important than anything that goes on in the classroom; it’s also somehow (God knows how) more relevant to “real life” than academics; and it’s so time- and labor-intensive that it leaves no time or space for academics. Which means that student-athletes deserve A’s just for being who they are.

                I sometimes wonder whether rancor and age have just turned me into some curmudgeonly caricature of myself, but it could also be that students at my institution are uniquely problematic. The inquiry continues.

                Like

    • Smith mentioned that he’d read Roderick’s post (at BHL), but not David’s here. (For some reason, PoT is not a household name.) Apparently, he’s at ARI’s Objectivist Summer Conference, which ends June 27, so he’s otherwise engaged until then.

      Like

  4. Assuming perfectly reliable cause and effect, every event, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing right now, were “causally inevitable” from any prior point in eternity.

    Wow! That sounds ominous. But what does that mean, in practical terms? Well, not a whole lot. To say that something is “causally inevitable” simply means it came about by normal cause and effect, which is something we’re all familiar with. We all use and experience reliable causation every day in everything we do.

    It is important to note that determinism doesn’t do anything. Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can cause events to happen. And determinism is neither an object nor a force. It is simply a comment, an assertion that the behavior of the objects and forces is reliable, and thus theoretically understandable and potentially predictable.

    Natural objects behave differently according to their organization. For example, atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are gases until you drop their temperatures several hundred degrees below zero. But if we reorganize them into molecules of water, we get a liquid at room temperature that we can drink.

    There are three broad classes of organization that affect the behavior of natural objects:

    1. Inanimate objects behave passively in response to physical forces.
    2. Living organisms behave purposefully to satisfy biological needs.
    3. Intelligent species behave deliberately by calculation and reason. And that’s where free will emerges.

    We, ourselves, happen to be natural objects. Like other natural objects, we cause stuff. The Sun, by its physical mass, causes the Earth to fall into a specific orbit around it in space. We, by our choices and our actions, cause trees to be felled and houses to be built to keep us warm in Winter.

    We are living organisms of an intelligent species. Like all living organisms, we cause events in the real world as we go about meeting our biological need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As members of an intelligent species, we can imagine different ways to pursue these goals. We consider how different options might play out, and then choose the option that we feel is best.

    Causal necessity/inevitability does not replace us. It is not an inevitability that is “beyond our control”. Rather, the concept incorporates us, our choices, and our actions, in the overall scheme of causation.

    Universal causal necessity, while being a logical fact, is irrelevant to any practical issue. While we can readily apply the knowledge of specific causes and their specific effects, there is nothing one can do with the general fact of universal causal necessity.

    After all, what can you do with a fact that is always true of every event, that cannot distinguish one event from another, and which cannot be altered in any way? Nothing. It makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation; it can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

    For example, if causal necessity is used to excuse the thief for stealing your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who inflicts a harsh penalty.

    But what about our freedom? Does causal necessity constrain us in any meaningful way? Well, no. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

    Then, what about free will? Does determinism constrain our ability to choose for ourselves what we will do? Nope. It is still us doing the choosing. Only a specific cause, such as the guy holding a gun to our head, can compel us to act against our will.

    So, determinism poses no threat to free will. It is not a guy holding a gun to our head.

    Like

    • David Potts had said this:

      Assuming perfectly reliable cause and effect, every event, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing right now, were “causally inevitable” from any prior point in eternity.

      Marvin Edwards:

      Wow! That sounds ominous. But what does that mean, in practical terms? Well, not a whole lot. To say that something is “causally inevitable” simply means it came about by normal cause and effect, which is something we’re all familiar with. We all use and experience reliable causation every day in everything we do.

      It is important to note that determinism doesn’t do anything. Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can cause events to happen. And determinism is neither an object nor a force. It is simply a comment, an assertion that the behavior of the objects and forces is reliable, and thus theoretically understandable and potentially predictable.

      Me, responding to Marvin:

      Suppose that I face a choice at a certain time t, between two (incompatible) options, A and B. Introspectively, I take myself to have the power to choose between the two options at t, which means that I could (at t) either choose A or choose B. Suppose I choose A. Then it remains the case that I could (at t) have chosen B. I could have done otherwise, as they say. My introspective belief is entirely accurate on this picture. I thought I had a choice between two options,w here “having a choice” meant being able, at some time, to choose between them while being able to choose (and then, as a result of the choice, do) either of them.

      If determinism is true, the preceding introspectively plausible description of choice is all wrong. If I face a “choice” between A and B at a certain time t, then I will either do A, or I will do B, but it’s never true that I could have done either (A or B) at t. There is (if determinism is true) no such thing as a “could have done (A or B) at t.” Suppose that I do A. Then factors antecedent to t made it the case that I ended up doing A. Suppose the “factors” in question are not choices of mine, and not chosen by me. If so, could I have done B? No. Those factors made B impossible to choose or do. Is my introspective belief that I could have done B false? Yes, it is. I’m in the grips of an illusion. I thought I could do B, but I couldn’t.

      Whatever the truth or falsity of determinism or free will, the point is that the first of these interpretations is incompatible with the second. I don’t even mean for that to entail “incompatibilism.” I mean something more modest: if you interpret free will by way of the first scenario, and interpret determinism by way of the second, the two scenarios are incompatible. Whether free will should be interpreted the first way, and determinism the second, is a separate question. But whatever the answer to it, the two scenarios can’t both be thought to describe the same situation.

      I’ve only quoted the very first part of your comment, but I’ve read both of your comments in their entirety, so I’m not just responding to this one small excerpt. My objection to this excerpt really is my objection to your view as a whole. As I see it, your view misunderstands what people typically mean when they insist on the incompatibility of free will and determinism. By contrast with what you’ve written, advocates of free will endorse a power to do otherwise distinctive to human choice that is incompatible with determinism. And though some indeterminists regard free will as an exception to causality, not all do. Agent causal libertarians don’t regard their advocacy of free will as an exception to causality, but as an instance of it. Agents, or freely choosing persons, are capable of initiating causal sequences through choice without being caused to initiate them by antecedent factors that are not themselves objects of choice.

      The standard response to the view you’re taking is that it rests on an equivocation, or differently put, fails to recognize the multiplicity of uses of the term “freedom.” Freedom from external constraint on your actions is one kind of freedom, but it doesn’t necessarily entail freedom of will. If you’re free in the sense of being free of coercion (and/or: free from deception, duress, mental disorder, manipulation, etc.) but you’re still caused to choose by non-choice/non-chosen factors antecedent to and determinative of your choices, your will is not free. The one kind of freedom is not sufficient for the other (arguably not necessary, either). Non-chosen antecedent factors that determine your choices are out of your control, and render any choices produced by them beyond your control. You only control what is up to you, and if something is up to you, you have alternate possibilities with respect to it.

      (So say libertarians about free will, to be distinguished from libertarians about coercion. Both understand freedom to be freedom-from-some-external constraint, but they’re doing so in different contexts, referring to different kinds of constraints, external in different ways, to different things.)

      There’s an implicit suggestion in your June 23 12:09 comment that we ought to look to the law for guidance on matters of moral responsibility. You don’t explicitly say that, but if that’s your suggestion, I disagree. The law is only occasionally and accidentally a useful guide to moral responsibility–and probably as misleading as it is useful. Legal education does not, except in a very, very peripheral way, deal with free will and moral responsibility at all. The law is primarily about legal liability, not moral responsibility, and the two things often have nothing to do with one another.

      The most obvious example of divergence is strict liability, where people are explicitly held liable for things that they couldn’t possibly be held morally responsible for, but beyond that, it’s a common practice in criminal law to reduce mens rea considerations to purely behavioral ones in the interests of mere convenience (for the prosecution). After awhile, that practice gets so institutionalized in the law that lawyers have trouble imagining alternatives to it.

      There are many examples of this, but my favorite is careless driving. Careless driving is obviously a mens rea offense: to be guilty of it, the driver has to be operating a motor vehicle without “due attention” to the road. But in practice, prosecutors “establish” failures of due attention by citing simple behaviors–like a vehicle’s crossing the line for a second or two into the shoulder of the highway–which supposedly “establish” carelessness by fiat.

      In and of itself, crossing the fog line into the shoulder of a highway doesn’t even begin to prove carelessness. It doesn’t really prove anything significant. The problem prosecutors face is, if the motorist fails to make any incriminating admissions during the stop, it’s too hard to convict him of mens rea carelessness. But people have to be convicted, don’t they? Clearly. So judges commonly ignore the mens rea requirement altogether, to the point where the very idea of requiring one becomes unintelligible to them. Walk into any municipal court in the land, and you’ll see judges hearing testimony about drivers slowing down “too much,” or crossing a line for a second, or “jerking” within their lane, and then solemnly inferring that the motorist was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of careless driving. That’s nonsensical and not what the law requires, but it’s how lawyers, jurists, and law enforcement officers often think. To follow their lead in understanding the conditions of moral responsibility is a recipe for error. They are simply focused on all of the wrong things, and uninterested in most of the relevant ones.

      It makes things worse that cops and lawyers have little or no training in or understanding of how to think about mental disorder. I don’t mean to suggest that psychologists or psychiatrists necessarily have the answers here, but I think it’s clear that cops and lawyers absolutely do not. They systematically hold mentally disordered people responsible for things beyond their control, or else go to the reverse extreme and infer that mental disorder implies complete non-responsibility for one’s actions.

      I belabor all of that to take issue with this:

      And most people understand and correctly use the operational definition is practical real world scenarios.

      That strikes me as overstated by a long shot. As far as moral judgment is concerned, people often find themselves in the grips of two equal and opposite mistakes: the lust to condemn (usually others), and the desire to rationalize (usually one’s own malfeasances). They can also be extremely chintzy about giving praise when it’s due, or overly generous about praising either themselves or their heroes. And they systematically underestimate the role of pure luck in human life. That’s a lot to get wrong, and in my experience, plenty of people get plenty of it wrong.

      On a libertarian understanding, those mistakes arise from a failure to understand other people’s actions by reference to the options they faced, not simply by looking at the outcome, looking at the antecedent factors, and fast-forwarding to a conclusion about what must have happened. The most common (but very common) example is to accuse someone of lying when they’ve simply made an error (or worse, to accuse them of perjury for the commission of an error). Cops and prosecutors do that all the time, but then, so does everyone else. People would avoid these mistakes if they were more precise about what others believe and control. I don’t have statistics at hand for how many people get this right and how many don’t, but “most people get it right” strikes me as overly optimistic about the “real world.”

      Like

      • To step outside of the “introspection” business, we can visit a restaurant. We observe a woman come in, sit down, and peruse the menu. After a while, she calls the waiter over and says, “I will have the Chef’s Salad, please”.

        Choosing is an operation that inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and, based on that evaluation, outputs a single choice. The choice is an “I will …”, a specific intent which motivates and directs our subsequent actions.

        We objectively observe that the woman performed this operation, because she literally had a “menu of options” to choose from, and she output a single “I will have the Chef’s Salad, please”. We don’t know what criteria she applied to select the Chef’s Salad, but if we’re curious we can always walk over to her and ask her.

        So, there can be no claim that she did not in fact make a choice. Nor can there be any claim that some other object in the physical universe made that choice instead of her. She actually did it. And she will be held responsible for that choice when the waiter brings her the bill. And if you asked anyone, say you for example, whether she acted of her own free will, they would say, “Yes”.

        Now, if someone had put a gun to her head, and forced her into the restaurant against her will, and made her order the Chef’s Salad, then she would not be asked to pay the check, because her was not acting of her own freely chosen “I will…”, but instead had been subjugated by force to the will of the guy with the gun. He was making making the choices for her. And, in addition to being held responsible for kidnapping her and forcing her to do things against her will, he should also be given the check to pay. Because he was responsible for these events. I would suggest that everyone, including you, when asked “Did she enter the restaurant and order the meal of her own free will?” would say “No.”

        And you could not say otherwise, without equivocating. But, then, there’s a lot of equivocating in the field of Philosophy. (for a laugh, see Beyond the Fringe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSifxC_L9F0 )

        If our woman were deranged, and gave evidence of such by ordering everything on the menu, then she would escape responsibility for the check, because she was under the extraordinary (undue) influence of whatever fantasy was controlling her mind. And, again, we would say she was not acting of her own free will.

        So, how is this practical notion of free will affected by the other notion, that of perfectly reliable cause and effect (determinism)? It isn’t. The logical fact that every event is the reliable result of prior events doesn’t change a thing.
        Whatever prior causes made the woman who and what she was that day had to first become her before they could cause any event. She chose the Chef Salad, to suit her own purpose and her own reasons. That purpose and those reasons are the causal determinants of her choice. And they are integral to who and what she is at the time of choosing.

        They did not “make her” choose the Chef Salad. They WERE her making the choice.

        Determinism, and what she WILL do, has nothing at all to do with what she CAN do. At the beginning of the choosing operation it is logically necessary that (1) she have at least two real possibilities to choose from and (2) that she has the ability to choose either one. Whenever we return to that point in time, at the beginning of the operation, those two logical facts are true. If either is false, the operation breaks.

        It is an error to conflate “can do” with “will do”. The fact that I WILL choose A does not contradict the fact that I CAN choose B. The fact that I DID choose A does not contradict the fact that I COULD HAVE chosen B.Why? Because the operational meanings of “can”, “ability”, “possibility”, “option”, etc. are derived from the choosing operation. We are imagining possible futures, estimating how each choice might turn out, and them picking the one that best suits our interests.

        The Universe has no interest in what we will have for lunch. Nor did the Big Bang. Nor does determinism. Nor does causation. None of these objects, events, or concepts posses any interest in us or our choices. It’s really us, and we’re really doing it.

        You said, “If determinism is true, the preceding introspectively plausible description of choice is all wrong.” No, there are no practical implications that can be derived from the concept of perfectly reliable cause and effect. The logical fact of living in a deterministic universe is taken for granted already. Our minds require a world of reliable causation. We ask “Why did this happen?”, because we want to understand the causes, because understanding the causes of events gives us control over events. Knowing the causes of diseases enables us to create vaccines that prevent them, or medicines that cure them, or places to avoid so that we don’t catch them.

        I would suggest that it is likely, having evolved within a deterministic universe, that all our human concepts already subsume reliable cause and effect. That would include the concept of freedom, and, of course, free will.

        We are collaborative collections of reliable causal mechanisms. And we are control links in the causal chain. Within the domain of human influence, our process of choosing causally determines the inevitable future. And the process starts with imagining different possibilities, evaluating them, and choosing to implement the single inevitability.

        Causal necessity/inevitability does not obliterate us. It is as much us as it is anything else.

        Like

        • What you’re saying in the 3:54 pm comment strikes me self-contradictory. I will respond to the second comment (on law) separately.

          On the one hand, in affirming determinism, you’re saying that every choice anyone makes, including the woman in your example, is necessitated by antecedent factors, including factors that are not themselves chosen.

          The logical fact that every event is the reliable result of prior events doesn’t change a thing. Whatever prior causes made the woman who and what she was that day had to first become her before they could cause any event. She chose the Chef Salad, to suit her own purpose and her own reasons.

          That means that at any moment, there is one and only one choice possible to a decision-maker. If you had asked the woman whether she felt as though there was a moment when she could have chosen either the chef’s salad or some other option, the only correct answer would have been “no.” If she said “yes”–as most people would–she would have been wrong.

          On the other hand, despite saying that you’re setting introspection aside, you give a perfectly accurate description of what introspection reveals about choice:

          At the beginning of the choosing operation it is logically necessary that (1) she have at least two real possibilities to choose from and (2) that she has the ability to choose either one. Whenever we return to that point in time, at the beginning of the operation, those two logical facts are true. If either is false, the operation breaks.

          That means that at the moment of choice, the chooser faces more than one possibility.

          The combination of those two claims produces a contradiction. You can’t say that there is only one necessitated outcome at a given time, and say that there’s more than one possibility for choice at that time. Either there is one necessitated outcome at a given time, or there is more than one possibility at that time. A person cannot have a single choice at a given time that involves both a single necessitated outcome and a set of alternate possibilities.

          You say you want to avoid the introspection business, but your own description of the woman’s choice forces us right back to it. To understand her action, we have to understand her motivation. To understand her motivation, you yourself suggest that we ask her about it. Assume that we ask her, and she gives us an answer. How else did she come up with it except by introspection? If so, we haven’t really stepped past the introspective business at all. Nor can we, since introspection is the only access we have to the phenomenon under discussion. Free will is about one’s will. The best evidence anyone can have of the operation of his will is introspection on his will.

          I brought up introspection precisely because introspection gives us more direct access to the evidence regarding free will than having to ask a third party about their motivations and accepting their testimony about it–which is just a matter of expecting them to introspect and accepting whatever they have to say, instead of introspecting on your own mental processes in your own case. By introspecting, you cut out the middle man (or woman) and confront the evidence directly. My point is, if the woman in your example is like most people, she’d say some version of what I said in the first paragraph of my response to you. It’s what I’d say about my own decisions.

          Your description of the woman’s choice of chef salad does not prove that her choice is free. As it stands, the description is practically indistinguishable from a description I might have given of my cat’s choosing one of two dishes I put in front of him. The choice you ascribe to to the woman is no different from my cat’s “choice” to eat beef shreds rather than salmon pate on a given occasion. But my cat’s apparent “choice” of the one over the other–even when he seems to hesitate or deliberate over the “choice”–doesn’t prove that he has free will. It just proves that his desire for the one dish overrode his desire for the other on a given occasion. Everything he does can be explained by the strength of his desires. With him, the strongest desire wins. If he likes shreds more than pate, he eats shreds. If he likes pate more than shreds, he eats that. If he just wants to throw a tantrum for its own sake, he doesn’t eat anything.

          If determinism were true, more or less the same thing would be true of the woman. She might choose the chef’s salad because that’s her strongest preference tonight, and because her antecedent preferences determine her choices. The explanation of her choice might be more complicated than a cat’s, but it would amount to the same thing as the explanation of animal behavior. It doesn’t matter that the preferences happen to be hers, or a part of her identity, any more than it matters in the case of my cat. The fact remains: a determined preference determining a choice is not the same as a an undetermined choice determining a preference. An organism whose preferences are driven by choice is not the same kind of entity as an organism whose choices are driven by preferences.

          The only thing that differentiates your explanation of the woman’s choice from a hypothetical explanation of my cat’s is that you claim that the woman is responsible for the bill, and then regard that fact as evidence for free will. This is just what I meant when I said that it’s misleading to use the law (or social convention, generally) as evidence for the existence of facts about moral responsibility or free will. The fact that the restaurant demands payment, and that the woman would be arrested if she didn’t pay for her meal, doesn’t prove anything about free will. It’s just a set of conventional facts about the social world: people are expected to pay for services, and get in legal trouble if they don’t. If the woman refuses to pay and gets arrested, you might well ask the arresting officer whether she had free will. And he might well say, “yes.” But that’s as consistent with her having free will as it is with his being indoctrinated to believe that she has it. As I said before, legal professionals have no particular insight into free will (whether they’re cops, lawyers, or judges).

          I could start demanding that my cat perform tricks to earn the meals I feed him, refusing to feed him when he failed to perform those tricks according to my commands. His compliance with that arrangement wouldn’t prove that he had free will or had made a free choice. It would just prove that I had trained him well.

          The fact that I WILL choose A does not contradict the fact that I CAN choose B. The fact that I DID choose A does not contradict the fact that I COULD HAVE chosen B.

          If what you choose is what you were necessitated to choose, then what you choose is what you had to choose. But if you have to choose something A at a given time, you can’t choose some incompatible thing B at that time. If determinism is true, then choosing A at a given time implies that you could not have chosen B at that time. Either you are necessitated at a given time or you have alternate possibilities at that time, but not both. If you are necessitated, you can’t do otherwise. To do otherwise requires alternate possibilities a given time. So I reject the thought you express in your second sentence, which just seems a contradiction in terms.

          Your use of “will” in the first sentence involves an equivocation or conflation. In one sense, “will” implies alternate possibilities. In another sense, it implies a resolution to choose in a situation where the decision-maker lacks alternate possibilities. In the first sense, your claim is internally inconsistent. In the second, it’s not compatible with free choice.

          Like

          • Irfan: “in affirming determinism, you’re saying that every choice anyone makes, including the woman in your example, is necessitated by antecedent factors, including factors that are not themselves chosen.”
            Marvin: Correct.
            Irfan: “That means that at any moment, there is one and only one choice possible to a decision-maker.”

            Marvin: No, it doesn’t. She literally had a menu of possibilities to choose from. She “could have” chosen any item on the menu. But if we were to roll back the clock, and replay this event, it will always be the case that she “would have” chosen the Chef Salad.

            When you say that “there is one and only one choice possible” you are speaking figuratively. What you mean is that it is AS IF there is one and only one choice possible. And people use figurative language often to make a point, just like they use metaphors, analogies, and other figures of speech.

            But a figurative statement has one key drawback: it is always literally false.

            What is it that we mean by saying that any given choice is “possible”? It means that she can choose it IF she wants to. What do we mean when we say we “can” do something? It means that at some future point she might do it IF she chooses to.

            To say that something “can” happen does not mean that it “will” happen. It only means that it can happen.
            To say that something “will not” happen does not mean that it “cannot” happen. It only means that it will not happen.

            So, by conflating “cannot” with “will not” we make a mental error, and that leads us to making false statements which lead to incorrect conclusions.

            Irfan: “You can’t say that there is only one necessitated outcome at a given time, and say that there’s more than one possibility for choice at that time. ”

            Marvin: Of course I can. Because that’s the way things actually are.

            Irfan: “How else did she come up with it except by introspection?”

            Marvin: Yes, we can call it “introspection” or just the general process of “thinking” or “reasoning” to solve an issue like what to have for lunch. She says she wanted to eat something that tastes good, but that would also be good for her. Not too many calories. Not too much fat. That’s why she said she chose the Chef’s Salad. We see no hint of irrational thinking or hallucinations or delusions. So, in addition to being free from coercion, she was also free from undue influence. It fits the operational definition of free will.

            Irfan: “My point is, if the woman in your example is like most people, she’d say some version of what I said in the first paragraph of my response to you.”

            Marvin: Okay, hang on a moment…I think this is what you’re referring to:

            Irfan (earlier): “My introspective belief is entirely accurate on this picture. I thought I had a choice between two options,where “having a choice” meant being able, at some time, to choose between them while being able to choose (and then, as a result of the choice, do) either of them.”

            Marvin: And an objective evaluation of the facts of what happen support that viewpoint, even in a perfectly deterministic universe. You did, in fact, have choices between different options at the beginning. And you did, in fact, choose between them, leaving you with a single choice, a single “I will…”. And every step of this process was causally necessary/inevitable from any prior point in eternity.

            Here’s the kicker: Because every event that ever happens is always inevitable from any prior point in eternity, the FACT that any given event is inevitable is both meaningless and irrelevant. So, the reasonable mind simply acknowledges it, and then ignores it. And it never comes up, because it never needs to. Then, of course, we have the philosophers. And from them we get the hard determinists and free will skeptics drawing all kinds of false conclusions from what is essentially a meaningless triviality.

            Irfan: “Your description of the woman’s choice of chef salad does not prove that her choice is free.”

            Marvin: Free from what? We’ve demonstrated it was free from coercion and undue influence. Is there some other meaningful and relevant constraint that her choice needs to be free from?

            Like

            • Well, I think we can pinpoint the exact disagreement we’re having. But all I can say is that I regard what you’re saying as literally self-contradictory on par with saying that “1 = 2 or more.”

              Irfan: “in affirming determinism, you’re saying that every choice anyone makes, including the woman in your example, is necessitated by antecedent factors, including factors that are not themselves chosen.”
              Marvin: Correct.
              Irfan: “That means that at any moment, there is one and only one choice possible to a decision-maker.”
              Marvin: No, it doesn’t.

              Yes it does. And not only is that obvious to me, but it’s obvious to you, given what you say farther down in your comment. If my choices are determined, then there is no time at which it is ever literally true that (at that time) I could either do X or do Y. If I end up doing X, then it was true that for any time prior to my doing X, I had to do X. “Choosing/doing X” is a single choice, and was the only possible choice. In the context of free will, to say that I can choose X at a given time implies that I can also (literally) choose not-X at that time. If you can’t literally say that of my choice, it wasn’t free.

              You’re saying that a decision-making has only one “option” at any given time, while also saying that there is some time at which the same decision-making has more than one option with respect to the same choice. I’m repeating myself at this point, but I don’t see how else to put it: either there is some single unique thing you can do at a given time, or there is more than one thing you can do at that time, but both cannot simultaneously be true. Given that, it makes no sense to say “there is some unique single thing I can do at a given time, and there is more than one thing I can do at that time.” That is literally like equating “1” with “2 or more.” But that’s what you seem to be doing.

              You save yourself from contradiction by claiming that “there is more than one thing I can do at some time” is metaphorical. But my claim is that the preceding formulation is literal, not metaphorical. A free action is literally one in which the agent, the decision-maker has two or more possibilities for choice at a given time, and chooses one of them on the basis of a choice that is not itself necessitated by anything but choice (whether that very choice, or some prior choice or choices).

              Your metaphorical interpretation of choice’s involving alternate possibilities just leads to another contradiction. You yourself are saying that choices “really,” literally involve alternate possibilities, and you’re saying that alternate possibilities are a mere metaphor. Here, in your words, is the literal version:

              She literally had a menu of possibilities to choose from. She “could have” chosen any item on the menu.

              And here, in your words, is the metaphorical interpretation of the very same choice:

              When you say that “there is one and only one choice possible” you are speaking figuratively. What you mean is that it is AS IF there is one and only one choice possible. And people use figurative language often to make a point, just like they use metaphors, analogies, and other figures of speech.

              But a figurative statement has one key drawback: it is always literally false.

              My view is that you had it right the first time: the literal statement is correct, the metaphorical one is not. Either she literally had options, or saying so is a metaphor. But it can’t both be literally true and a metaphor. You seem committed to saying: (a) she has more than one choice open to her, and (b) she has only one; (c) she literally has more than one choice open to her, and (d) it’s a metaphor that she has more than one choice open to her, but literally speaking, it’s false that she does.

              A libertarian (a non-determinist advocate of free will) can legitimately assert (a) and (c). A determinist can legitimately assert (b) and (d). No one can legitimately assert (a)-(d) all at once.

              If she literally had options (i.e., was free on a libertarian interpretation of free will), then supposing she chose the chef’s salad, there was some time when she literally had the power to choose: either the chef’s salad, or some other non-chef-salad option (some other salad, or no salad). But that is what determinism denies, and what it turns into an illusion.

              On this question:

              Marvin: Free from what? We’ve demonstrated it was free from coercion and undue influence. Is there some other meaningful and relevant constraint that her choice needs to be free from?

              Free from prior necessitating factors that aren’t free choices of the decision-maker herself. As I see it, putting a gun to her head has nothing to do with free will. You could put a gun to her head, and she might still retain free will over her mental processes, including her internal decision to choose whatever she wanted from the menu, regardless of what the gunman demanded. If he put a gun to her head, and demanded “chef salad,” she might still freely choose chef salad, at least within the confines of her mind. If he demanded “Greek salad,” she might outwardly comply with the demand, but still internally, freely choose chef salad without telling him. The gunpoint ultimatum is beside the point. Finally, you could take the gun and gunman away and she might still be necessitated by factors beyond her control, hence unfree. I never put a gun to my cat’s head. But gun or no gun, he’s not free. A cat-like interpretation of the woman would render her unfree too, gun or no gun.

              The heart of the problem here may well be the role of introspection. Introspection isn’t just a synonym for thinking or reasoning. Introspection is the internal observation of one’s own mental processes from a first-person perspective. You can’t introspect on someone else’s behavior or on the actions of inanimate objects. You can only introspect on your own mind (that’s the “intro” element of introspection). Every example of determinism you’ve given is an example given from a third-person perspective, which is the perspective that seems to give plausibility to determinism. But determinism loses whatever plausibility it has from a first-person perspective, from the perspective of the “I,” the self or agent, who’s actively doing the choosing.

              From this perspective, it’s just an undeniable fact that we observe the workings of our own capacity for non-necessitated choices. The only way to deny that they are non-necessitated is to abandon the first-person perspective, ignore what it discloses, adopt a third-person perspective (often described as a “scientific” one), and insist from that perspective that there must be some necessitating factor at work that nullifies what is observed from a first-person perspective. I don’t see any reason to do that. It’s not obvious to me that science requires determinism. It only seems to require determinism if we insist on describing human beings as mechanical objects (computers, machines) or as non-rational animals. But that’s something I would resist.

              Like

              • A few brief thoughts while I take a break from cleaning:

                1. I agree with you that Marvin’s position here at least verges on incoherence, but I’m not sure it’s too far from the neighborhood of a more familiar sort of compatibilism, viz. the sort that the Stoics (as I understand them) took. The Stoic compatibilist affirms that an agent who is free has alternatives in a real sense that non-free agents do not. When our lady is choosing her meal, she can choose between a variety of options, not simply the one that she does choose. She has not simply the opportunity — freedom from external constraints — but also the ability to select whichever item seems best to her. Most other agents in the world do not have that ability; non-living agents don’t, plants don’t, and most or all animals don’t either. That’s because they either don’t have the capacity for intentional action at all, or, like non-rational animals, always act on their strongest appetite. Our lady has the capacity to choose what seems best to her independently of her appetites. By virtue of this distinctively rational ability, she can choose any of the options available to her (including none). Of course, her overall mental state at any given time will determine whether she chooses this or that (because it seems best to her), and what seems best to her will have been determined in part by the conclusions she’s reached either by reflection or acquiescence in acquired judgments, and so on; determinism is preserved and determinism involves necessitation. But it’s false to say that she can only choose the chef salad, or that she can’t choose the other options. She can. Appropriate ascriptions of what she can and can’t do track her capacities and the opportunity that external circumstances give her to exercise them. Given determinism and her mental state at the time of choice, it is in a very real sense not possible for her to choose other than she does. But, the Stoic compatibilist thinks, she was able to choose from among other options. She does not have alternative possibilities given the totality of her mental state, but she does have the capacity to choose from among alternatives. Non-rational agents don’t have that capacity, and it is sufficient for moral responsibility.

                Of course a libertarian will not be satisfied with that way of understanding alternative possibilities. But it isn’t incoherent, at least not in the way that you see Marvin’s view as incoherent. It doesn’t say “she has only one option, but she also has more than one option.” It instead distinguishes between the sort of possibility that it denies to us (possibility to choose contrary to our total mental state at the time of choice) and a sort of ability that it allows to us but not to non-rational agents (the ability to choose among alternatives on the basis of reasoned judgment about what is best), and it maintains that the latter is sufficient for moral responsibility.

                I incline toward an agent-causal libertarian view, but I don’t have strong commitments on this issue. I do not think that this sort of compatibilism could be non-revisionary of ordinary beliefs (the Stoics didn’t either; it exerts a great influence over their attitudes toward blameworthy people, attitudes that typically emphasize that the agent was doing what she thought best and would not have done it had she known better). I take arguments like yours to push pretty hard against determinism, but I’m not quite willing to say that compatibilism of this sort would undermine moral responsibility. But I do not think determinism is compelling even apart from considerations of rational agency.

                2. Your points about introspection seem right as far as they go, but I wonder whether the whole idea that standard libertarian intuitions are grounded in uniquely first-personal evidence is mistaken. Our understanding of ourselves and our first-personal perspective does not seem radically discontinuous from our understanding of others in both third- and second-personal perspectives. It seems to me that libertarian-ish intuitions emerge pretty straightforwardly from reflection on rational agency in general. One of the things I think Kant got right is that when we understand someone (anyone, not just ourselves) as acting rationally, we see their agency as free from necessitation by non-rational causes. To put it in somewhat un-Kantian terms, whether I’m deliberating or reflecting on my own actions, or interacting with you, or observing you, insofar as I understand you or myself as a rational agent, I see your or my action as an expression of intention, choice, and thoughts about what is worth doing in the circumstances. I don’t think this quite entails that I see you or myself as having strong alternative possibilities, but it does seem to involve not seeing our actions as caused by factors outside our control, and it seems to involve my seeing you as seeing yourself as choosing among possibilities that are open to you. I can agree that we have a kind of relevant perspective on our own actions that we don’t have on others’, but much of what makes that perspective clash intuitively with determinism seems to be not so much some intrinsically private item that we find there, but the fact that we take ourselves to be rational agents — and that is not special to a first-personal perspective, but belongs every bit as much to a second- and third-personal perspective (so long as we don’t conflate a third-personal perspective with an impersonal one, one that abstracts away from all the features that distinguish a person from a non-rational animal, a plant, a machine, etc.).

                Liked by 1 person

                • I basically agree with that. The real bottom-line claim in my response to Marvin is that agent-causal libertarianism is incompatible with determinism, and that agent-causal libertarianism is a plausible view made particularly plausible by introspection. It’s incoherent to insist that free will is perfectly compatible with determinism without acknowledging that people reasonably disagree about what counts as free will. You can’t dismiss agent causal libertarianism simply by insisting that there is no conflict whatsoever between determinism and free will.

                  I had some worries that my responses to Marvin might cause collateral damage to more plausible forms of compatibilism. Though I lean toward agent-causal libertarianism (like you, without having a final, conclusive verdict on the matter), I wouldn’t flatly dismiss compatibilism as sheer nonsense, at least not at this stage in my thinking. What I insist is that my interlocutor grant what is plausible about non-compatibilist forms of libertarianism, whether indeterminist or agent causal. I myself don’t favor indeterminism, but I don’t think that an indeterminism like, say, Nozick’s can be dismissed by saying that it leads to a nightmare picture of a counter-causal, anti-scientific ontology. And agent causal libertarianism is less vulnerable to that charge than indeterminism.

                  On (1): I see the plausibility in the view you’re describing, but would say two things. First, whatever the plausibility of the Stoic view, is isn’t what Marvin’s said, and I was responding to the particularities of what he said, not to other possible views beyond that.

                  Second, while the Stoic view is not literally incoherent, I don’t think it’s sufficient for moral responsibility, or more generally put, for the kind of self-determination that I regard as exemplifying free will (as you surmised I wouldn’t). Nominally, the Stoic view treats rationality as operating independently of appetite, but substantively, it treats rationality as operating in the way appetites do, as necessitated by prior factors that make their way through the “agent.” I may be reading Stoicism too much through Hume, but anyway, that’s how I read what I so far understand of it.

                  Speaking in my own voice, about my own view: I take reason (somewhere, somehow) to require something like a liberty of indifference, the capacity at t (as you nicely put it) to choose contrary to one’s total mental state prior to t. In denying our capacity to do that, compatibilism goes through the motions of defending free will without actually doing so. That’s basically my objection to all forms of compatibilism I’ve ever encountered. I’m not denying that I could be argued out of libertarianism and into compatibilism. The issue turns on what counts as freedom, and I admit that maybe libertarians (including, even, me) are setting the bar too high. But the reason for thinking we’re setting it in the right place is that the stronger libertarian sense of freedom is what introspection seems to disclose to us. Which brings us to issue (2).

                  On (2): I agree with what you’re saying here, but let me take the opportunity to clarify what I’m saying about first-personal evidence; I don’t take myself to be saying something quite as strong as the idea you’re criticizing. It may sound that way because Marvin seems to be doing an end-run around introspection altogether, and I’m adamantly insisting against that sort of view that introspective evidence is crucial. But I wouldn’t deny anything you’re saying re (2).

                  So: I don’t mean to suggest that the case for libertarian freedom is grounded exclusively in introspective evidence. I certainly don’t mean to be saying (a la Thomas Nagel) that the first- and third-person perspectives on agency inevitably give rise to radically discontinuous pictures of agency. Nor am I denying the need to integrate and make coherent what they show us, or denying that it’s possible to do so.

                  One thing I am saying (the least controversial thing) is that you can’t successfully discuss free will by systematically bracketing introspective evidence, or ignoring it in an ad hoc way (which is what I take Marvin to be doing). The clearest and most accessible evidence we have of free will is introspective. To fail to consult it is close off the clearest and most accessible source of evidence available to us. But of course, once we consult introspective evidence, it’s not as though we’re solipsistically locked inside ourselves, either. We have to make others’ behavior intelligible in addition to our own. If you apply to others what you’ve figured out about yourself (as you should), then yes, others’ actions will become intelligible on libertarian grounds, and the overall coherence achieved by integrating first- and third-person perspectives is epistemically valuable.

                  What I’m resisting in Marvin’s comments is a common tendency in arguments for determinism: Ignore introspective evidence as though it either didn’t exist or didn’t matter. Then look at the behavior of others and insist that to be intelligible, that behavior must operate in a world of causes. Then say: well, causes necessitate, right? Finally reach the conclusion: human action is deterministic through and through. Then infer that moral responsibility must be conceived (re-conceived) to fit that deterministic result. I object to the opening move in this argument, not just in the context of free will and determinism, but in any discussion of anything relevant to the mind. (In that respect, but not necessarily beyond it, I’m influenced by people like Nagel and McGinn.)

                  Once you grant the first move in that argument, every conversation starts to sound like this:

                  Determinist: Look at the causes!
                  Non-determinist: Yes, but introspection discloses a sort of freedom that involves alternate possibilities incompatible with necessitation by prior unchosen factors.
                  Determnist: But look at the causes!
                  Non-determinist: But introspection…
                  Determinist: Look! Look at the causes!

                  The predictability of these conversations is almost enough to incline one toward belief in determinism. Almost.

                  Nothing is ever going to convince me of the truth of hard determinism. Here is what might push me from libertarianism into compatibilism:

                  1. Some super-duper convincing argument that shows that determinism is true. I’ve never seen one, but I don’t claim it’s impossible.
                  2. Some argument that says that libertarianism just renders human action (including ascriptions of moral traits and/or responsibility) mysterious and/or unintelligible.
                  3. The discovery that libertarianism is the result of introspective error. In other words, it might be, as a matter of introspective fact, that what we thought of as the capacity to do otherwise against our total mental state was really something other than that. Such an argument would have to show that the capacity to do otherwise against our total mental state at t is really, subtly, necessitation by one’s mental state at t–and there turns out to be a good explanation, perfectly consistent with everything else we know, for why we experience alternate possibilities as a “literal” capacity to do otherwise in the full bore libertarian sense.

                  My point is that Marvin doesn’t do any of those things any more than R.E. Hobart or Harry Frankfurt do. But I wouldn’t deny outright that someone else has done it or might.

                  Like

                • I saw through the paradox as a teenager browsing the philosophy section in the library. I think I must have been reading something by Spinoza when I ran into the problem. I recall a simple thought problem that I went through, and I don’t know if I came up with it or if I read it somewhere:

                  The idea that my choices were inevitable bothered me, so I considered how I might overcome inevitability. It struck me that all I needed to do was to wait till I had a decision to make, between A and B, and if I felt myself leaning heavily toward A, I could choose B instead! So simple. But then it occurred to me that my desire to thwart inevitability had caused B to become the inevitable choice, so I would have to switch back to A again, but then … it was an infinite loop!

                  No matter which I chose, inevitability would continue to switch to match my choice! Hmm. So, who is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?

                  Well, the concern that was driving my thought process was mine. Inevitability was not some entity driving this process for its own reasons. And I imagined that if inevitability were an entity, it would be sitting there in the library laughing at me, because it made me go through these gyrations without doing anything at all, except thinking about it.

                  Free will was a deterministic event, but it was an event where I was actually the one doing the choosing.

                  And since the solution was so simple, I no longer gave it any thought, until just a few years ago when I ran into discussion about it, and I wondered why it was still a problem for everyone else.

                  Like

                • At this point, I don’t have anything to add that doesn’t repeat something I’ve already said, either to you or to David Riesbeck (DJR), so I’ll keep this last comment (relatively) short, and focused on two points.

                  Here’s how you describe the end of your solution to the problem. My response is that it isn’t a solution. It leaves the problem exactly where it was in the first place.

                  Well, the concern that was driving my thought process was mine. Inevitability was not some entity driving this process for its own reasons. And I imagined that if inevitability were an entity, it would be sitting there in the library laughing at me, because it made me go through these gyrations without doing anything at all, except thinking about it.

                  Free will was a deterministic event, but it was an event where I was actually the one doing the choosing.

                  What you’re saying there is close to the “Stoic compatibilist” thought that Riesbeck described in a comment yesterday. The fact that a thought process is yours doesn’t make it free. If the process is a deterministic one, it’s only “yours” in the sense that it’s an event happening in you. It’s an event, not a free action where you are the agent doing the acting, or the decision-making making the decision. The control over the process is not up to you in the relevant sense.

                  What we are disagreeing over is the relevant sense of “up to you.” In the libertarian sense of “up to you,” for something to be up to you, you have to be able, at some moment, to choose between two or more options even if your total mental state up to that point would otherwise have produced one of those options. In the non-libertarian sense, something is up to you if your mental state produces it (period), as long as the mental state in question involved the right sequence of prior states.

                  I have a libertarian conception of free will, so I insist on the first interpretation of “up to you.” You take a deterministic conception, so you adopt the second. From my perspective, you are misconceiving what freedom is, because you’re assuming that determinism must apply to everything. From your perspective, I am turning freedom into something impossible to have or achieve because I’m unnecessarily rejecting determinism in the case of human choice.

                  But introspectively, I think it’s clear that the first interpretation of “up to you” is the right one. What we observe of ourselves from a first person perspective is our control over our actions. But determinism is incompatible with control. If you can’t drive a process in the reverse of the direction it would have gone if not for your intervention, you don’t control it. But you can’t do that unless the intervention into that process is up to you in the libertarian sense I mentioned. I’m not sure whether you are denying that introspection is to be trusted, or denying that introspection really reveals what I say it does, but I’m saying: unless proven otherwise, it is to be trusted, and it reveals that some things are up to us in the strong libertarian sense, not just the weaker compatibilist sense. (I’m not denying that some mental processes are compatible with determinism. I’m denying that they all are.)

                  A second point. I think you’re oversimplifying what the debate is about.

                  I suspect that the problem that results in the libertarian position results from an overstatement of determinism, where it is cast as a boogeyman that robs us of our control over our choices and actions. That threat to our control sends the theists running for escape to the supernatural and causes the atheists to seek shelter in quantum indeterminism.

                  Well, libertarians do see determinism as robbing us of control over our choices and actions. That threat does lead some to run for escape to the supernatural, and others to seek shelter in quantum indeterminacy, but there is a third possible position that you’re missing, agent causal libertarianism. A libertarian of the agent causal sort could reject determinism, but instead of adopting either supernaturalism or quantum indeterminacy, claim that human choice is a natural but unique phenomenon capable of its own unique form of causality, self-determination. On this view, human beings naturally have the capacity to initiate causal sequences by choice, where the choice is made possible by our natural capacities for rationality, but is not necessitated by prior factors that aren’t themselves choices. This is a unique sort of causality, because human beings are themselves unique, but it’s no more supernatural a phenomenon than we are.

                  The only “similarity” to supernaturalism is the denial that all causality operates via necessitation by prior events. But unless you equate “natural” with “operating by prior event necessitation,” there’s no appeal to the supernatural here; libertarianism is a way of understanding the possibilities that operate in nature. I don’t know about Riesbeck (no one does, not even Riesbeck), but I’m a libertarian atheist, so I don’t take myself to appealing to the supernatural.

                  Nothing in nature is unconstrained by causal structure, but that doesn’t mean that everything is necessitated by some prior set of events. Libertarian freedom is not necessitated by prior events, but it still has a definite structure and operates in a definite context. It’s not an unlimited freedom to do just anything out of the blue (a view sometimes ascribed to existentialism). It’s a natural human capacity to choose between options of a certain kind. Many libertarians conceive it as a power of selective attention. But a non-deterministic power of selective attention is not a supernatural phenomenon.

                  Same thing with quantum indeterminacy. Some libertarians appeal to it, but agent causal libertarians need not and don’t. There is no significant connection between selective attention and quantum indeterminacy. I see quantum indeterminacy as irrelevant to the real issue, as I suspect you do as well.

                  I don’t know the current state of the literature on agent causal libertarianism, but the person who most influenced me into adopting it was Timothy O’Connor, now at U of Indiana Bloomington. I assume (from his bio) that he’s a theist, but theism is not essential to his conception of free will.

                  http://www.indiana.edu/~scotus/articles.html

                  The other person who influenced me was Roderick Long, who writes for this blog–but I was influenced by his unpublished work, and I don’t know whether he’s published on this.

                  Like

                • Irfan: “If the process is a deterministic one, it’s only “yours” in the sense that it’s an event happening in you. It’s an event, not a free action where you are the agent doing the acting, or the decision-making making the decision.”

                  Marvin: To someone who suggests that I am being controlled by the “laws of Nature”, I can say that I happen to be a specific package of those laws of Nature, walking around, choosing what I will do according to my own best interests. And when I act, I AM a force of Nature. To those who suggest that I am being controlled by causal necessity, I can say that I happen to be a specific package of causation, a control link in the causal chain, and my choices causally determine what will happen next (at least in the limited sphere of my causal influence). So, when you say that determinism means that it is just an event happening inside me, I would say that I AM those events, and therefore what those events control, I control.

                  I think that, like you, I’ve already said everything I wanted to say.

                  I don’t read a lot of philosophy (I majored in psychology), so most of the people you’ve read I have not read. I’ve got a book by Daniel Dennett but I’ve put off reading it. I only recently saw one of his YouTube videos. So, I’m unfamiliar with most of the authors you and DJR mention.

                  I did take Richard Carrier’s on-line course on Free Will, which took a very critical look at Sam Harris’s horrid little book on the subject. Carrier’s course also had examples of a couple of Supreme Court cases that referenced free will, as well as several of Eddy Nahmias’s research studies about “folk intuitions” and the negative practical consequences of convincing people that free will did not exist.

                  I’ve read a couple of very good neuroscience books: Michael Gazzaniga’s “Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”, and Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain”.

                  But the thought experiment in the library as a teenager gave me the key to unlocking the paradox. So, I’ve felt a lot like the kid who broke out laughing in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

                  It has been very nice talking with you and djr.

                  Like

                • Irfan: “3. The discovery that libertarianism is the result of introspective error.”

                  No. I don’t think that the introspection is incorrect. What we see is what we get. The brain models sensory input as objects and events. To the degree that the model is accurate enough to be useful, as when navigating our bodies through a doorway, then it is “for all intents and purposes” true reality. It is only when it is so inaccurate that we fail to deal effectively with reality, like when we walk into a glass door thinking it is open, that it deserves to be called “illusion”.

                  I suspect that the problem that results in the libertarian position results from an overstatement of determinism, where it is cast as a boogeyman that robs us of our control over our choices and actions. That threat to our control sends the theists running for escape to the supernatural and causes the atheists to seek shelter in quantum indeterminism.

                  The proper view, in my opinion, is that deteminism is nothing other than the same ordinary cause and effect that we all experience and put to our own use every day. Causal necessity/inevitability is a logical fact, derived from reliable cause and effect, but it is not a meaningful or relevant fact.

                  Concepts like determinism and causation are not entities that go about in the world making things happen for their own interests and desires. I’ve learned that is called a “reification fallacy”. Determinism does not determine anything. Causation doesn’t cause anything. Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can be said to cause events to happen.

                  And we happen to be one of those objects. Causal necessity/inevitability cannot act in the world. But I can.

                  Like

                • Well, I was trying to offer a better defense of what looked to me like the essence of Marvin’s position. He seems to think that he’s got it all figured out, though, and not to be inclined to recognize any need to alter anything in his view. So it’s reasonable for you to continue to object to what he actually says rather than to a more defensible form of compatibilism.

                  I suppose I am inclined to say that on one very common conception of introspection, the evidence isn’t really introspective at all. We don’t, I take it, get the intuition that our rational agency has features incompatible with determinism by looking inside our minds at some items in there. We get it by reflecting on the presuppositions of rational agency. Features of our experience accessible only to us certainly contribute to our taking ourselves to be rational agents, but we take other people as rational agents (with good justification in standard cases, I’m here assuming) without any access to their private mental states, and we learned to think of ourselves as rational agents through second-personal interactions with others who treated us that way and taught us to treat them that way. I don’t mean to suggest that this way of thinking about ourselves is purely learned and in no way natural to us; what I mean is instead that we don’t come to think of ourselves and others as rational agents primarily by gazing upon anything inside our minds that is inaccessible to others.

                  The reason I think this is non-trivial is this: if we take ‘introspection’ in its narrow sense, then any evidence of freedom from introspection would seem to be pretty tenuous; sure, we seem to ourselves not to be determined, but so what? By contrast, if rational agency as such — and not just the way things seem to us when we look inside our minds — is prima facie inconsistent with determinism, then the problem is much less easily dismissed. As I see it, it’s not that we have other, additional evidence or reasons to doubt that determinism is compatible with rational agency. It’s that (at least some of) our first-personal evidence is fundamentally the same as our second- and third-personal evidence. The crucial evidence isn’t some feeling or lack of feeling that I experience when I’m making a decision; considerations like that don’t tell us much at all, and it’s easy to see why most philosophers act as if that evidence doesn’t matter. The crucial thing is that rational agency as such seems incompatible with determinism; in taking someone to be a rational agent, we suppose (the thought goes) that they have a kind of control over what they do that is incompatible with determinism. First-personal evidence makes it harder for me to be skeptical about whether I am in fact a rational agent than about whether your or anyone else is, but the principal grounds for doubting compatibilism lie in apparently essential features of rational agency, not in some things that I can look at in my mind.

                  Of course it might be that libertarian intuitions rest on a misinterpretation of what is involved in taking someone to be a rational agent. I take it that Marvin thinks something like that; he must think that you are misinterpreting whatever evidence there is, because otherwise it would be nonsense for him to say that introspection isn’t in error and yet to take a compatibilist view. But a compatibilist might also think that ordinary conceptions of rational agency are just in need of revision on these points.

                  It’s obvious that your conception of free will as requiring real alternative possibilities is not in fact compatible with Marvin’s conception of free will. To be consistent, he has to think that you’re guilty of some kind of conceptual confusion. Otherwise he’s simply confused himself.

                  My own view, such as it is, is that compatibilism is not necessarily inconsistent with rational agency or moral responsibility, but that it would require a significant revision of both relative to ordinary conceptions as embodied in common experience and practice. If determinism (of the right sort) is true, then we don’t have libertarian free will. But it wouldn’t follow that rational agency is a pure illusion or that we can in no sense be held responsible for what we do. Nobody thinks that dogs have libertarian free will, but it is not true that they are not agents in any significant sense or that they can in no sense be held responsible for what they do. Human agency and moral responsibility on compatibilist assumptions need not reduce to non-rational animal agency and responsibility, but I agree with you (and, I take it, against Marvin) that compatibilism would require a revisionary conception. In quasi-Strawsonian terms, I think that the relevant sort of determinism should be an exempting condition from the sort of reactive attitudes that most of us tend to have — though not a condition that would require us to take a purely ‘objective’ attitude. So I suppose I am a hypothetical quasi-compatibilist or something like that. Well, most of the time, anyway — unlike, apparently, Marvin, I haven’t been able to convince myself that there’s a clear, easy, and obvious solution that leaves everything in place.

                  Like

                • I was surprised when I first ran into the word “compatibilism”. I don’t recall seeing it in the library when I first ran into Spinoza. I think I was about 15 or so, which puts my experience back around 1961. The word still consistently fails spellcheck, so I suspect its unique to philosophical dictionaries.

                  So, my compatibilism, or rather my explanation as to why free will and determinism are not incompatible, may be a bit different than most.

                  Like

                • Compatibilist-type views are (as both Davids suggest) ancient. I don’t know who coined the term “compatibilism,” but one classic statement is R.E. Hobart’s, which dates to 1934.

                  https://philpapers.org/rec/HOBFWA

                  W.T. Stace also defended a version of the position in his 1952 book, Religion and the Modern Mind, but I don’t remember whether he actually uses the term or not. (I think not.)

                  http://god-defined.com/philosophy/FreeWill.pdf

                  Anyway, thanks for coming by and sharing your views, and don’t hesitate to comment on anything else you see here.

                  Like

                • Well, I said that a previous comment of mine was my last, so I’m going to be brief here (as though by being brief, I somehow mitigate the failure of resolve involved in writing another comment).

                  The crucial evidence isn’t some feeling or lack of feeling that I experience when I’m making a decision; considerations like that don’t tell us much at all, and it’s easy to see why most philosophers act as if that evidence doesn’t matter. The crucial thing is that rational agency as such seems incompatible with determinism; in taking someone to be a rational agent, we suppose (the thought goes) that they have a kind of control over what they do that is incompatible with determinism. First-personal evidence makes it harder for me to be skeptical about whether I am in fact a rational agent than about whether your or anyone else is, but the principal grounds for doubting compatibilism lie in apparently essential features of rational agency, not in some things that I can look at in my mind.

                  The crucial evidence is the evidence of control we have, control which rational reflection or conceptual analysis shows to be incompatible with determinism. But we only know that we have that control by exercising and experiencing it (and then paying self-conscious attention to the experience), which is what I mean by introspection. If we had no internal experience of it, we’d have no idea what it was. We could go through the motions of rational reflection on the incompatibility of control with determinism, but the “control” itself would be an inscrutable black box.

                  Our introspective experience of control is not a feeling that sits alongside our exercise of control, but is (on my view) direct epistemic access to the phenomenon itself, analogous in some ways to our direct perceptual to the physical world. Nor is introspection our inward scrutiny of some discrete “item” that happens to be in mind as a result of exercises of agency (in the way that the image of some remembered place might be, experienced during a bout of nostalgia). It’s self-conscious attention to the experience-of-being-an-agent-during-the-act-of-agency, something we typically ignore outside of philosophical (or maybe psychotherapeutic or judicial or pastoral) contexts, when we just act unself-consciously without caring about second-order questions about what we’re doing qua free agents.

                  Like

              • Waiter (a free will skeptic): “What will you have for dinner tonight, sir?”
                Customer: “I’m not sure. What are my possibilities?”
                Waiter: “There is only one possibility.”
                Customer (disappointed): “Oh. Okay, then what is my only option?”
                Waiter: “How should I know. I can’t read your mind.”

                Irfan: “If my choices are determined, then there is no time at which it is ever literally true that (at that time) I could either do X or do Y.”

                Marvin: Choosing is a multi-step operation that can only begin if (a) there are at least two real possibilities and (b) we have the ability to choose either one. Our woman in the restaurant only has an hour to order and eat her lunch before she goes back to work.. So, she needs to complete the choosing operation.

                But then we tell her that her choice is already determined and she can only make that one choice. The only problem is, we don’t know what that one choice is until she completes the choosing operation. By teling her that the choice has already been made by causal inevitability, she cannot proceed to choose, and the choice never happens.

                The notion, that there is only one possibility that she can choose, literally breaks the choosing operation.

                The operation logically demands at least two real possibilities and the ability to choose either one. So, for the sake of the operation, and at least within the context of the operation, they are true.

                But does that mean the operation is not deterministic? Nope. She will follow a number of steps in her thinking that estimate how satisfied she will be with each of her options, and then pick the one she believes will best suit her own purposes and her own reasons.

                Purpose and reason are causes. We know, because if we ask someone why they choose A instead of B, they will happily give us the reasons why A was the better choice. And as long as those reasons hold, the person will always make the same choice.

                Irfan: “You’re saying that a decision-making has only one “option” at any given time, while also saying that there is some time at which the same decision-making has more than one option with respect to the same choice.”

                Marvin: No. I’m saying that determinism does not remove any possibilities or options: From any prior point in eternity, it was causally necessary that the woman would (1) find several meals on the menu that would meet her dietary goals, (2) consider which one might best satisfy her taste buds as well, and (3) based upon that evaluation choose to order the Chef Salad.

                I’m saying that step (1) was just as causally inevitable as step (3). Possibilities are generated by mechanisms of reliable cause and effect.

                Possibilities are products of the imagination. A “real” possibility is an imagined future that we can actualize if we choose to do so. Once it is actualized it is no longer referred to as a possibility.

                The woman literally had options, because the process of imagining an option is a physical process running upon the neurological infrastructure of the brain. When she considered the Pea Soup, different images, smells, and prior experiences were brought forward from memory than when she considered the Chef Salad. And each step in the sequence of her mental experiences was also causally necessary from any prior point in eternity.

                Irfan: “Free from prior necessitating factors that aren’t free choices of the decision-maker herself.”

                Marvin: You are suggesting that a causal agent must be free from prior causes before it can be said to be acting freely. That requirement can never be met, so it makes no sense to impose it in the first place. If we impose that requirement then we must remove the concept of “freedom” from the dictionary. So, let’s stop doing that.

                The terms “free” and “freedom” must implicitly or explicitly reference some meaningful and relevant constraint. Reliable cause and effect is not a meaningful constraint, because what we will inevitably do is the same as what we would have done anyway. Reliable cause and effect is not a relevant constraint, because there is nothing we can do about it.

                But coercion and undue influence are meaningful and relevant constraints upon our ability to choose for ourselves what we will do. Therefore it is reasonable that the ‘free” in “free will” should reference them.

                Irfan: “From this perspective, it’s just an undeniable fact that we observe the workings of our own capacity for non-necessitated choices.”

                Marvin: To the contrary, we observe ourselves working through thought processes that unfold in a reliable fashion, even when they jump about.

                I think that the first person and third person perspectives need not be in conflict. They are two viewpoints of the same unfolding of event.

                Like

                • I think the only way to save this view from incoherence is to distinguish between alternative possibilities as Irfan (and most libertarians) conceives of them and options and abilities, at least roughly in the way the Stoics conceive of them. That won’t settle anything, because you and Irfan will still disagree about (a) whether the absence of real alternative possibilities undermines moral responsibility, and (b) whether we have good reason to think that we are free in Irfan’s stronger libertarian sense. As it is, you’re not forthrightly facing the first issue, viz. that you do in fact deny that determinism leaves an agent with real alternative possibilities, so that your affirmations that agents ‘have options’ and the like need to be understood in a way consistent with the absence of real alternative possibilities. The redefinitional move — Irfan’s conception of freedom would make it impossible, so we shouldn’t think of freedom that way — is no way out; for one thing, we really ought not to jettison every concept that we think does not name a real possibility; for another thing, it’s a purely semantic move that settles nothing — sure, we can use a different word, let’s call it ‘Irfreedom.’ Irfan thinks that our ordinary conception of ourselves and other responsible agents presupposes that we have Irfreedom, and he thinks that ordinary practices of holding ourselves and others responsible presuppose that we have Irfreedom. You don’t settle those disagreements by choosing to use signifiers differently.

                  Like

                • “The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? — fated or free? — material or spiritual? — here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.” James, William. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions) (p. 17). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

                  Hi DJ, I’m just trying to resolve the silly old paradox. If the paradox between determinism and free will rests in their respective definitions, then that is the only way to solve the problem. Here’s the solution in a nutshell:

                  “Free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.
                  “Determinism” asserts that the behavior of objects and forces in our universe provides perfectly reliable cause and effect, and thus, at least in theory, is perfectly predictable.

                  Because reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will. A meaningful constraint would be a man holding a gun to our head, forcing us to do his will. But reliable causation is not such a force. It is simply how we operate as we go about being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

                  Because our decisions are reliably caused by our own purpose, our own reasons, and our own interests, our deliberate choosing poses no threat to determinism. Choosing is a deterministic process. And this process is authentically performed by us, according to our own purpose, reasons, and interests.

                  As it turns out, every choice we make for ourselves is both freely chosen and reliably caused. Thus, the concepts of free will and determinism are naturally compatible.

                  Like

                • And, I would add, you haven’t really shown that Irfreedom is impossible. For one thing, you beg the question in favor of causation requiring necessitating determinism. For another, you assert without adequate defense that reasons operate as causes and causes of a necessitating sort. Without a fairly developed theory of causation and rational agency, those claims are at best uncompelling.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • If I may quote from my blog:

                  Natural objects behave differently according to their organization. For example, atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are gases until you drop their temperatures several hundred degrees below zero. But if we reorganize them into molecules of water, we get a liquid at room temperature that we can drink.

                  There are three broad classes of organization that affect the behavior of natural objects:

                  1. Inanimate objects behave passively in response to physical forces.
                  2. Living organisms behave purposefully to satisfy biological needs.
                  3. Intelligent species behave deliberately by calculation and reason. And that’s where free will emerges.

                  We, ourselves, happen to be natural objects. Like other natural objects, we cause stuff. The Sun, by its physical mass, causes the Earth to fall into a specific orbit around it in space. We, by our choices and our actions, cause trees to be felled and houses to be built to keep us warm in Winter.

                  We are living organisms of an intelligent species. Like all living organisms, we cause events in the real world as we go about meeting our biological need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As members of an intelligent species, we can imagine different ways to pursue these goals. We consider how different options might play out, and then choose the option that we feel is best.

                  Causal necessity/inevitability does not replace us. It is not an inevitability that is “beyond our control”. Rather, the concept incorporates us, our choices, and our actions, in the overall scheme of causation.

                  Universal causal necessity, while being a logical fact, is irrelevant to any practical issue. While we can readily apply the knowledge of specific causes and their specific effects, there is nothing one can do with the general fact of universal causal necessity.

                  After all, what can you do with a fact that is always true of every event, that cannot distinguish one event from another, and which cannot be altered in any way? Nothing. It makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation; it can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

                  For example, if causal necessity is used to excuse the thief for stealing your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who inflicts a harsh penalty.

                  But what about our freedom? Does causal necessity constrain us in any meaningful way? Well, no. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

                  Then, what about free will? Does determinism constrain our ability to choose for ourselves what we will do? Nope. It is still us doing the choosing. Only a specific cause, such as the guy holding a gun to our head, can compel us to act against our will.

                  So, determinism poses no threat to free will. It is not a guy holding a gun to our head.

                  Like

                • I’ve come to enjoy the ease with which philosophical doctrines get named after me. There’s “Irfreedom,” and I seem to remember one associated with my views on coercion. Did you just blandly call that “Khawajan coercion”?

                  I defended my Ph.D. dissertation a full seventeen years after matriculating as a grad student at Notre Dame. Given what happened between matriculation and the defense (and at the defense itself), there was doubt that I’d ever get the degree. And yet I did. MacIntyre declared my successful dissertation defense a miracle, claiming that the miracle involved amounted to a new proof for the existence of God–“The Argument from Khawaja.”

                  As you can see, having doctrines named after me has involved varying degrees of flattery, including some measured in negative numbers.

                  Liked by 2 people

                • Well, MacIntyre is probably right; if God exists our continued existence can only be accounted for as the product of entirely unearned grace. I sometimes suspect that God made my own dissertation defense too easy in order to disarm me and make me think I knew what I was doing, only to smite me more effectively in the future. It worked.

                  I name things after you often because you often insist on taking F to be essential to ‘C,’ where others insist that ‘C’ does not necessarily include F, and I, as a historian of philosophy, have very little patience for debates that revolve entirely around trivial semantic bickering (e.g., Plato vs. contemporary epistemologists on ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’). In this case, though, the ‘Irfreedom’ label was a concession to the opposition; I don’t give two shits about whether somebody wants to use the word ‘freedom’ differently than you, I want to know whether what you mean when you use that word is a thing. Whether or not it’s a thing, it would be important if it were a thing. Therefore we need to refuse to countenance sophistic arguments that would redefine it out of existence by using ‘freedom’ differently. Maybe most of my efforts to coin Irfan-specific concepts are not favorable to your own position, but this one was. Well, it was intended to be. (I know my own intentions via introspection, right?)

                  Like

                • Right, but semantic disputes are a thing, too. When David Papineau suggests that “knowledge” should be thrown out, he’s not necessarily disputing that knowledge is a thing. He’s disputing whether the thing in question (if it is one) should be called “knowledge,” with all of the semantic freight carried by that term.

                  Dissertations: People always give you the facile advice not to worry about your dissertation defense, because you’ll know more about your topic than anyone in the room, and everyone will “realize” that and defer to you. That is not how my defense went. Mine really was a defense. The non-philosophy observer who was there said he’d never seen a dissertation defense as bellicose as mine. It began with a procedural dispute between me and one of the members of the committee in which my parting response was, “Well, you should have figured that out a month ago. So let’s get on with it.” That was minute 1. The most memorable criticism of the afternoon was, “Didn’t Brentano already say everything you’ve said here–but better?” Wish I could remember how I responded.

                  Liked by 1 person

      • Regarding law enforcement. We have two separate enforcement mechanism. Society’s system of laws and their enforcement define a set of rights that we agree to respect and protect for each other. Laws describe behavior that violates those rights. A just penalty seeks to (a) repair the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correct the offender’s behavior if feasible, (c) protects society from further harm by restricting the offender’s freedom until his behavior has been corrected, and (d) does no more harm to the offender and his rights than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

        The system for enforcement of moral rules is a person’s conscience. Society and conscience usually agree on most things, but occasionally there are significant conflicts. These can lead to acts of civil disobedience, protests, and attempts to correct the law t better align it with conscience.

        Praise and blame, reward and punishment, are all deterministic tools of behavior modification. It is misguided to blame these on free will. No one is ever punished for having free will. They are punished because of the criminal harm they have caused to someone else.

        If we are seeking justice, then we should gravitate to a correctional system that is just to the victim, to the offender, and to the public.

        On the other hand, if we are seeking retribution or vengeance, then we’re not likely to find justice.

        Like

        • I don’t have a strong disagreement with what you’re saying in the 6:50 pm comment. In a general way, I happen to agree that it would be preferable to have a criminal justice system focused on the three things you mention. My point is that we can’t prove anything about free will by pointing to facts about legal practice or social convention. The evidence for free will is partly introspective, and partly a matter of conceptual analysis: we introspect on the operation of our minds, and think about its implications. We can’t, without begging the question, point to social conventions or legal practices that presuppose (or seem to presuppose) some conception of free will or determinism and use their existence to prove controversial claims about free will or determinism. That way of doing things gets things backwards.

          Like

          • The evidence for free will is similar to the evidence for reliable cause and effect. We look around us every day and observe certain events reliably caused by prior events, like the coffee being hot because it was heated. We look around us every day and witness other people making choices about what they will do next. We may notice a child who wants to have cake for lunch, but who must obey his mother’s will rather than his own.

            We see movies where bank robbers point a gun at the teller and she turns over the money. No one blames her, because she was not free to choose for herself what she will do. But they do blame the robber because he acted deliberately, for his own profit. He is neither blamed nor punished for having free will, but rather because he stole everyone’s money.

            Ordinary folk have rather ordinary views which appear to be more accurate and true than some of the philosophical thinking on these matters. (For research on “Folk intuition on free will” see http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf )

            Like

            • If determinism were true, a bank robber would be dangerous, but not blameworthy. It would then be appropriate to deal with him in just the way we deal with dangerous animals generally: we would either kill or confine him, but it would make no sense to blame him, any more than it makes sense to blame a wolf or a lion for attacking livestock. (We sometimes seem to “blame” our pets for their actions, but this is role playing or play acting, not to be taken literally, and actually somewhat neurotic if taken too far.)

              As I said in the previous comment, I don’t think the gun to the bank teller’s head has much relevance to free will. It certainly subjects her to coercion, which violates her rights, and in that sense infringes her freedom, but that is a different sense of freedom than the one involved in free will. Unless she is literally frozen by fear, even with a gun to her head, she retains freedom (in the sense relevant to free will) over options within her mind. Again, unless she is literally frozen by fear, as far as free will is concerned, she is free to defy the robber even if doing so is practically speaking pointless and irrational. Not everyone facing a gun is frozen into paralysis by it. The “paralysis by fear” response may be a deterministic one in some cases, but it’s not a universal reaction. Aside from that specific sort of case, I don’t think gunman cases prove anything about free will. And even in that case, all that such cases prove is that some responses to some stimuli are sometimes deterministic for some people–a far cry from what determinism asserts as a general truth.

              Like

              • Irfan: “If determinism were true, a bank robber would be dangerous, but not blameworthy. It would then be appropriate to deal with him in just the way we deal with dangerous animals generally: we would either kill or confine him, but it would make no sense to blame him any more than it makes sense to blame a wolf or a lion for attacking livestock.”

                Marvin: If blame worked on wolves and lions then we’d use it. Praise, blame, reward, punishment are all deterministic tools for behavior modification. The “hard” determinists preaching a “kinder, gentler world” would result if we discarded the concept of free will are misguided. No one is ever punished for having free will. They are punished to discourage them from continuing to commit criminal harm upon others.

                Irfan: “Unless she is literally frozen by fear, even with a gun to her head, she retains freedom (in the sense relevant to free will) over options within her mind.”

                Marvin: But it is also a matter of moral judgement: Which is morally better or worse, to give the robber the money or to be shot. Let’s change the scenario a bit, suppose the bank robber instructs the teller to stab the bank manager since he was unwilling to open the safe. Now the teller’s dilemma is not “your money or your life”, but “their life or yours”. And if the teller ends up stabbing a lot of people to death rather than being killed herself, I’m not sure the jury would acquit.

                The problem for the “hard” determinist is that determinism doesn’t actually change anything. If every event that ever happens is causally necessary and inevitably must happen, then determinism makes no practical distinction between any two events. It is a like a constant that appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

                If detrminism excuses the thief who stole your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who cuts off his hand.

                Like

Leave a Reply to djr Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s