Fischer, One of Four Views on Free Will

I’ve finally returned to the second author of Four Views on Free Will. The first author was Robert Kane. Here, I was introduced to John Martin Fischer, who wrote a section on Compatibilism. I’ve never read anything by Fischer. Indeed, I have no familiarity with him or his work. Allow me to start by saying that I was not impressed. Before diving into the content, let’s just say that he was extremely repetitive and circumlocutive. I found myself questioning whether the book was assembled with duplicate pages. Hadn’t I just read that? I’ll spare the reader the examples.

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

— King Crimson, Indiscipline

The topic was 44 pages on compatibilism. The first 30 pages were compatibilism before he changed to his brainchild, semi-compatibilism. Full disclosure: I am not a compatibilist. My recollection is that the majority of contemporary philosophers are compatibilists. Joining Fischer are Dan Dennett, Frithjof Bergmann, Gary Watson, Susan R. Wolf, P. F. Strawson, and R. Jay Wallace. Historically, this cadre are joined by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Mill. This motley crew has been opposed by Peter van Inwagen and historical figures, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, and Immanuel Kant.

Semi-compatibilism is the idea that regardless of whether free will and determinism are compatible, moral responsibility and determinism are.

At a meta-level, Fischer repeatedly—I’ll discontinue using this term as, like Fischer, it will become very, very repetitive—invoked law and common sense. Law is not a moral structure in search of truth. It’s a power structure employed to retain the status quo. And, as Voltaire quipped, ‘common sense is not so common.’ This is an argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) fallacy. It also relies on belief and perception. I suppose he’s not familiar with Descartes’ Meditations. It seems he is trying to forge Compatibilism into a cast of soft determinism with hopes that no one notices the switcheroo.

Fischer targets some quotes buy Kant, James, Wallace Matson, and Nietzsche with the general critique that they are expecting too much of an agent by expecting it to be the cause of its own actions. Nevermind, that he is guilty of just this in attempting to parse passive and active agents—passive being insentient dominos and active being conscious entities.

I’m not convinced that maths is a strong point. He sets up a hypothetical scenario where physics has proven that causal determinism is true, so 100 per cent of everything in the universe can be known with certainty. But then he does two things.

First, he exempts human agency—cuz reasons. Second, he creates a parallel scenario where 100 per cent might be 99 or 99.9 per cent.

Second, he claims that because he feels free, he must be free.

Similarly, it is natural and extraordinarily “basic” for human beings to think of ourselves as (sometimes at least) morally accountable for our choices and behavior. Typically, we think of ourselves as morally responsible precisely in virtue of exercising a distinctive kind of freedom or control; this freedom
is traditionally thought to involve exactly the sort of “selection” from among genuinely available alternative possibilities alluded to above. When an agent is morally responsible for his behavior, we typically suppose that he could have (at least at some relevant time) done otherwise.

— Fischer, p. 46

Nothing is such that thinking doesn’t make it so.

It seems that when watching a movie for the third time, the victim who gets killed in the cellar won’t descend the stairs this time. Fisher must get perplexed when she does every time. Of course, he’d argue without evidence that an active agent would be able to make a different decision—even under identical circumstances. He insists that the agent possesses this free will.

Whilst sidestepping physicalism and materialism, he simply posits that consciousness is just different and not subject to other causal chain relationships—and that these cannot be deterministic even if everything else is.

I’m going to digress on his next point—that the person who knows not to cheat on taxes, and who does so anyway, is responsible as any normal person would be. Perhaps the person feels that the taxes are being used for illegal or immoral purposes and is taking the moral high ground by depriving the institution of these proceeds.

Around 2007 or so, I paid my taxes due minus about $5,000, which was the calculated amount of the per capita cost of the illegal and immoral Iraq invasion by the United States and its cadre of war criminals in charge. I attached a note outlining my opposition and rationale.

Some months later, the Internal Revenue department sent a legal request to my employer for the withheld sum. Payroll summoned me and conveyed that they were required to comply with the request. I told them my perspective and said if they could sleep with that on their conscience, then they were in their power. And so no nights of sleep were lost.

The point of this anecdote is to say that morals are social constructs. Clearly, Fischer is just an old-fashioned conformist. I suspect he thinks of Valjean as a bad person.

Like many if not most people, he employs a compos mentis approach, exempting persons of reduced cognitive capacity and those under duress or coercion, but he is not a proponent of the causa sui defence.

He has an entire subsection devoted to the libertarian notion of freedom. To recapitulate, he simply regurgitated all of the standard arguments and exempts the aforementioned agents and adds people under hypnosis, the brainwashed, and so on. Nothing to write home about—not here either.

In the next subsection, his focus is on consequences. He calls out Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument.

Similarly, the skeptical argument about our freedom employs ordinary ideas about the fixity of the
past and the fi xity of the natural laws (putatively) to generate the intuitively jarring result that we are not ever free, if causal determinism turns out to be true (something we can’t rule out apriori). If this skeptical argument is sound, it calls into question any compatibilist analysis of freedom (that is, freedom of the sort under consideration – involving the capacity for selection among open alternatives). If the argument is sound, then not only both the simple and refined conditional analysis, but any compatibilist analysis (of the relevant sort of freedom) must be rejected.

Fischer p. 53

He leans on Borges’ garden of forking paths and claims (without support) that although the past might be fixed, freedom is the ability to add to the future, citing Carl Ginet as the source of this notion. He misses the point that that’s what the future is, tautologically. It adds now to the past and generates a future. Choice is not necessary for this function to operate, but he continues to insist on invoking it.

Standard Frankfort examples are referenced as well as Locke. Here he wants to point out regulative control—but he skirts the question of where the volition comes from by saying ‘for his own reasons‘, as if these reasons are somehow meaningful. In the end, he recites the scenarios, performs some hand-waving, and summons his accord with Robert Kane’s “dual voluntariness” constraint on moral responsibility.

He leaves us with the thought that if the Consequence Argument were true, it would be compatibilism’s death knell, but it’s not true (in his mind), so all is well in Whoville. Crisis averted.

Source incompatibilism is next. His focus here is on the “elbow room” necessary to exercise free will.

Elbow Room is the title of a book by Daniel Dennett originally published in 1984 and republished in 2015. I’ve recently read this on holiday, but I haven’t had time to review it. Please stand by.

His approach in this subsection is to attack opposing perspectives as reductionist. Of course, he’s right, but they are no more reductionist than anything he’s suggested thus far. Besides, simply injecting favoured concepts to add to a model to make it compatible with one’s hypothesis doesn’t make it less reductionist. It just makes the model more convoluted.

Here he attempts to elevate consciousness into a special category in order to shield it from the physics of the universe. We can’t say for sure what consciousness is, but you can bet it’s a magical place where practically anything can happen. OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.

He uses the metaphor of trying to assess how a television works by only studying the components. Of course, if that is all one did, one would be left with questions. But that is not where one stops. To be fair, neuroscience has come a long way since this was published in 2007. Neuroscientists are asking questions beyond the hardware.

He sets up a strawman by labelling total control as a chimaera as if anyone is arguing that if a theory doesn’t allow for total control, it will not be accepted. He does allow that…

We do not exist in a protective bubble of control. Rather, we are thoroughly and pervasively subject to luck: actual causal factors entirely out of our control are such that, if they were not to occur, things at least might be very different.

— Fischer, p. 68

We agree on this point, but I feel that he underestimates the remaining degrees of freedom after all of this is accounted for.

He attempts to create a mental model with vertical and horizontal lines. At least he admits that he does “not suppose [to] have offered a knockdown argument” because he doesn’t.

Finally, he wraps up this subsection by invoking Nietzsche’s famous Munchausen Causa Sui statement in Twilight of the Idols. He attacks this rationale as being “both ludicrous and part of commonsense.” He loves his commonsense.

Next, he wants to convince us, Why Be a Semicompatibilist? Semicompatibilism just needs enough elbow room to assert freedom. I suppose that’s the ‘semi‘ part. It feels to me an exercise in self-delusion.

The main idea behind semicompatibilism is to shrink the target size of compatibility and focus centrally on moral responsibility and agent control rather than the larger realm of free will.

Fischer makes what might be considered to be a religious argument. We should adopt this perspective because it feels better and is in our best interest. He cites Gary Watson’s view of using indeterminism to undermine determinism, but he feels that rather etiolates control rather than strengthening it because it “becomes unclear that our choices and actions are really ours.”

In the next subsection, he leads with the argument “that moral responsibility does not require regulative control, but only guidance control, and further that it is plausible that guidance control is compatible with causal determinism.” At least, this is the story he’s sticking to.

In Fischer’s “approach to guidance control, there are two chief elements:
the mechanism that issues in action must be the “agent’s own,” and
it must be appropriately “reasons-responsive.””

As for the “agent’s own” constraint, he simply notes that counterclaims exist, but he asserts that he doesn’t accept them.

As for reasons-responsiveness, he cites his own publication written with Mark Ravizza, Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility, and declines to elaborate in this essay.

In the final subsection, he writes about the Lure of Semicompatibilism. I do feel he is lured by the concept and makes light of the label. He advances the notion that “Kant believed that compatibility and incompatibilism are consistent“. Say what? But he takes a weaker position on this claim, using the Kant name-drop for cover.

As I said at the start, I don’t know anything about Fischer, but he is obsessed with legal theory as if it has any bearing on philosophical standing. Perhaps I’ll include a summary from a quick internet perusal. After I’ve wrapped this up. He mentions moral desert, which is a concept employed in matters of restorative and retributive justice.

The section concludes with a list of publications by him and others. Perhaps I’ll list them here in future as an addendum. For now, I’ll pop outside of this edit window and see what I can find on John Martin Fischer.


John Martin Fischer (born December 26, 1952) is an American philosopher. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.

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