As humans, we often leverage systems. They seem to make life easier. Whether a routine or a step-by-step instruction through an unknown process, a system can guide us. Systems are also connected, interactive entities, but that’s not for this segment. I am more interested in the loss of humanity that systematic processes and bureaucracy bring, so I am interested in imposed systems rather than systems we invent to find our keys and wallets.
If we consider systematisation and humanity on a scale, we can see that any move toward systematisation comes at the expense of humanity. It might make logical sense to make this trade-off to some degree or another. The biggest hit to humanity is the one-size-fits-all approach to a problem. It removes autonomy or human agency from the equation. If a system can be that mechanised, then automate it. Don’t assign a human to do it. This is an act of violence.
As I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Iain McGilchrist’s work lately, I feel one can easily map this to left versus right cerebral hemisphere dominance. System-building is inherently human, but it’s in the domain of the left hemisphere. But my imposition of a system on another is violence—one might even argue that it’s immoral.
As with bureaucracy, these imposed systems are Procrustean beds. Everyone will fit, no matter what. And when human beings need to interact with systems, we can not only feel the lack of humanity, but our own humanity suffers at the same time.
A close friend of mine recently checked herself into a mental health facility. After a few days, she called and asked if I could bring her a change of clothes and some toiletries—deodorant, soap, and shampoo. She had some in her house, but the packaging needed to be unopened and factory sealed. I stopped at a shop to buy these items and I brought them to the facility.
At the reception area, I needed to be cross-referenced as an authorised visitor, so I was asked to show proof of my identity as if it mattered who was delivering clothing that was going to be checked anyway. No big deal, they recorded my licence number on a form and ask me to fill it out—name, phone number, and what I was delivering.
The form stated that any open consumable items would not be allowed. I signed the form. An attendant took the bag and told me that I needed to remove the ‘chemicals’, that they would not be delivered. I pointed to the lines on the form that read that this restriction was for open items and reinforced that I had just purchased these and showed her the sales receipt. She told me that the patient would need to obtain a doctor’s permission, and she assured me that the patients all had soap.
I’m sure she thought she was being compassionate and assertive. I experienced it as patronising. Me being me, I chided her lack of compassion and humanity, not a great match for a mental health attendant. In fact, it reminded me of a recent post I wrote on Warmth. In it, I suggested that service staff should at least fake conviviality. I take that back. Faux congeniality is patronising. She mimicked me. “Yes, systems are so inhumane, but here we follow a system.” My first thought was of Adolf Eichmann, who kept the trains on schedule without a care for the cargo. This is the violence inherent in systems.
Systems are not illogical. In fact, they are hyper-logical. And that’s the problem, logic is traded off at the expense of empathy. And one might have a strong argument for some accounting or financial system process, but I’ll retort that this should be automated. A human should not have to endure such pettiness.
I can tell that this will devolve quickly into a rant and so I’ll take my leave and not foist this violence upon you.
The premise of the belief in free-will is that human decisions are made approximately half a second before we are conscious of them, and then the conscious brain convinces itself that it just made a choice. This sounds pretty damning, but let’s step back for a moment.
If you’ve been following this blog these past few months, you’ll be aware that I feel the question of free will is a pseudo-question hinging primarily on semantics. As well, there’s the causa sui argument that I’d like to ignore for the purpose of this post.
There remains a semantic issue. The free will argument is centred around the notion that a person or agent has control or agency over their choices. This means that how we define the agent matters.
In the study this references, the authors define the agent as having conscious awareness. Since this occurs after the decision is made, then the person must have had no agency. But I think an argument can be made that the earlier decision gateway is formed through prior experience. Applying computer metaphors, we can say that this pre-consciousness is like embedded hardware or read-only logic. It’s like autopilot.
In business, there are various decision management schemes. In particular, the conscious but slow version is for a person to be notified to approve or deny a request. But some decisions are automatic. If a purchase is over, say 50,000 then a manager needs to sign off on the request. But if the purchase is under 50,000, then the request is made automatically and then the manager is notified for later review if so desired.
I am not saying that I buy into this definition, but I think the argument could be made.
You might not know it by the number of posts discussing it, but I am not really concerned about whether or not free will really exists. I don’t lose any sleep over it. At the same time, I tend to react to it. Since I feel it’s a pseudo-problem where tweaking the definition slightly can flip the answer on its head, it’s just not worth the effort. On to better things.
The theme of this Institute of Art and Ideas video is ‘Should we move away from postmodernism?‘
EDIT: Find my version of this content on YouTube:
At the start, I feel as usual, that the definition of postmodernism is nebulous, and the fora agree, methinks. Toward the end, Hilary Lawson concedes that key actors tied to the early postmodern movement denied being postmoderns, singling out Foucault and Derrida. More on this. Keep reading.
Julian Baggini, the bloke sat on the left and whose positions I am only getting familiar with, starts off the clip. He makes some points, some of which I agree with and others not so much.
He makes a play at claiming that there is some objective truth to be attained, following on with the statement that without this notion, it’s anything goes. I disagree with both of these assertions. Then he cites Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, wherein he posits that subjectivity and objectivity are extrema on a spectrum and that experience is somewhere in between. This conforms to my beliefs, but there are two provisos. First, the extremum of objective truth is unattainable, objectively speaking. Moreover, as I’ve written before, we have no way of adjudicating whether a given observation is truer than another. It seems that he leaves it that we don’t need to know the absolute truth to know “true enough”, but I think this is both a copout and wrong—but not too wrong for pragmatism to operate.
For example—not mentioned in the clip—, I can imagine that physicists feel that Einsteinian motion physics is truer than Newtonian physics, especially as we need to take measurements nearer to the speed of light. In my thinking, this might provide a better approximation of our notion of the world, but I can also conceive of an Ideal, non-materialistic perspective where both of these are rubbish from the perspective of truth. I feel that people tend to conflate truth with utility.
Julian makes an interesting point about semantics with the claim that “some people” define certain things in such a way as to not possibly be attainable and then claim victory. But what are his three examples? Free will, the self, and objectivity. If you’ve been following me, you’ll know that I might be in his crosshairs because I tend to be in the camp that sees these concepts as sketchy. And to be fair, his claim of defining something in a manner to keep a concept out of bounds is the other side of the same coin as defining something in such a way as to get it into bounds.
I’ve spoken at length about my position on free will, but I am fairly agnostic and don’t particularly care either way. I feel that the causa sui argument as it applies to human agency is more important in the end. The self is different to free will insomuch as it’s a construction. As with any construction, it can exist, but it’s a fiction. Without interacting with Julian or reading his published works on the self, if there are any, I don’t know how he defines it. And here we are discussing objectivity.
Given Nagel’s objective-subjective polarity, it seems they want to paint postmodernism as claiming that everything is subjective and that science (and religion) hold claims to objectivity. Hilary Lawson, the geezer on the right takes a position between extremes, but he denounces Julian’s claim about objective truth, noting that many people (especially of religious persuasions) make claims on Truth that are diametrically opposed, ostensibly labelling the same object simultaneously black and white. And the object for all intents and purposes is red.
I’ve gotten out of order, but Julie Bindel makes some good points on Feminism and suggests that the philosophical feminists—may I call them pheminists? No? OK then—such as Judith Butler have set women’s rights back by claiming that the category of ‘woman’ is invalid. Minni Salami defended Judith by noting that Butler has helped constructively in some ways and, citing Simone de Beauvoir, that woman is a category established by men to create The Other Sex. Still, Julie—not incorrectly—states that without a category, women (or whatever collective term one decides is representative) cannot be afforded legal protections—because law, as facile as it is, is all about categories and classes.
Hilary reenters the fray and states that it is not acceptable for one person to claim that their lived experience is all that is needed just because that is their truth. To be fair, this feels like a bit of a strawman argument. Perhaps I need to get out more, but I am not familiar with anyone credible making this claim.
I enjoyed watching this clip and processing the information. I hope you do as well. If you have any comments, I’d love to read them.
In pursuit of my travail intellectuel, I stumbled on a thought experiment proposed by Richard Taylor regarding an old crowd favourite, Sisyphus.
Of course, Albert Camus had famously published his Myth of Sisyphus essay (PDF), portraying his life as analogous to the workaday human, absurdly plodding through existence like rinse and repeat clockwork—same gig on a different day.
Given my perspective on human agency and the causa sui argument, I felt commenting on Taylor’s essay, The Meaning of Life (PDF) would be apt.
The story of Sisyphus finds the namesake character, fated by the gods to each day push a stone up a hill only for it to roll back down for him to push it back up every day ad infinitum. Camus leaves us with the prompt, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’. But must we.?
As Taylor puts it,
Sisyphus, it will be remembered, betrayed divine secrets to mortals, and for this he was condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill, the stone then immediately to roll back down, again to be pushed to the top by Sisyphus, to roll down once more, and so on again and again, forever. Now in this we have the picture of meaningless, pointless toil, of a meaningless existence that is absolutely never redeemed.
Taylor wants us to consider an amended Sisyphus. He writes,
Let us suppose that the gods, while condemning Sisyphus to the fate just described, at the same time, as an afterthought, waxed perversely merciful by implanting in him a strange and irrational impulse; namely, a compulsive impulse to roll stones.
This significantly alters the dynamic. In the scenario, Sisyphus is not toiling; rather, he is pursuing his passion—following his heart. This is the athlete, artist, politician, or mass murderer following their passion. In fact, one might say that he is being his authenticself. He has no control over his self or his desire to roll stones, but he is in his element.
Taylor’s ultimate point is that in either case, the life of Sisyphus is just as devoid of meaning. Ostensibly, nothing can provide meaning. The best one can do is to have the perception of meaning. He writes,
Sisyphus’ existence would have meaning if there were some point to his labors, if his efforts ever culminated in something that was not just an occasion for fresh labors of the same kind. But that is precisely the meaning it lacks.
Although we cannot control what is within, contentment and happiness derive from perception. As we might be reminded by the quip attributed to Schopenhauer,
In the end, Taylor wants us to know that nothing out there can make us happy.
The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.
In my quest for background depth, I’m not only reading books, essays, blogs, and researched content, I’m viewing YouTube content, including the videos linked below that were reading and discussion groups. Perhaps I am interpreting it incorrectly, but these participants seem to invariably conflate the concept of determinism with an applied version of it.
In my mind, the concept is meant as a modal abstraction, which is to say if determinism were true, what degrees of freedom might one have? The idea is to accept this as a true premise, whether or not you accept or agree with it.
It’s like introductory physics—pretend there is no gravity; pretend there is no friction. I don’t believe any of these people would argue, “I can’t accept this environment. The world doesn’t work like that”. Except that’s exactly what they do when faced with determinism. It’s a mental model. Just work it as it’s presented.
Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Causal Determinism
By this definition, every event has an antecedent cause, the (future) result of which is one and only one outcome. It’s like viewing a film for the first time; you may not know the ending, but the ending is inevitable. If you rewind the film and replay it, the ending will remain the same at every viewing. Nothing anyone can do will alter the inevitability.
Free will is a muddled notion that basically declares at some level humans make free choices based on their own agency; that they have control over how the future is written; that the future is yet unwritten, so the film analogy doesn’t hold water.
Compatibilism is the belief that even in a fully deterministic universe. i.e., one in which everything is determined by some initial state as captured by the natural laws of physics still affords at least some limited notion of free will or at least proximate agency.
Adopting this belief in a deterministic universe necessitates relying on either metaphysical magic or semantic word games. Of course, there is nothing to say that you have to adopt a deterministic position, but if you do, you need to also explain how free will fits into the equation.
If one adopts the position of an incompatibilist this squaring up is no longer a problem, but then you are left to choose one or the other of the options as the two are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.
Although it is not necessary for any of the aforementioned monologue, indeterminism allows to some extent or another randomness to be introduced into the deterministic world. Effectively, this means that everything still operates in a causal chain or web, but stochastic or chaotic events perturb the future that might have otherwise happened.
This poses no challenges to the free will issue, as these are exogenous events and to the subject, they act the same as a deterministic event. In any case, if the source and behaviour of the indeterminacy were known, it would fold into the deterministic model. The same goes for luck and chance.
Third-Party Video Content
Whilst I found these videos engaging and useful, that the participants were not subject authorities was distracting and confusing. It was nice hearing them attempt to resolve their positions, but in the end, it turned out to reinforce Latour’s point in We Have Never Been Modern: consensus is more common than facts.
This bloke gives a crackup job explaining why compatibility is bollox.
Whilst searching for cover art for this post, I happened upon a blog entry that makes my point with the author running off on tangents and non-sequiturs.
When I was writing my review of Elbow Room, this categorical syllogism came to mind:
P1: All agents are responsible
P2: I am an agent
C: Therefore, I am responsible
Now I want to unpack it.
The first premise is that all agents are responsible. Of course, this hinges on how one defines agent and responsibility. It also depends on the scope, especially of the agent but to some extent also the scope of responsibility.
Leveraging the Causa Sui argument, the agent is a social construct and can only be responsible to what extent s/he has been programmed as well as the ability to maintain and process the programming effectively—so without bugs to continue with the parlance.
If the agent is immature or defective, expectations of responsibility are diminished.
If certain inputs were not given, there is no reason to assume a related command would be executed. This is why so much time and energy is spent on programming and evaluating children.
This first premise is predicated on the pathological need to blame. Unwritten behind the responsibility claim is that I feel compelled to blame. Blame requires responsibility, so if I want to blame someone, they must be responsible. In any given circumstances, I may feel the urge to blame anyone, so all agents [eligible people] are worthy of blame. There is no particular reason to exclude myself, so I too am blameworthy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?
As PF Strawson said, even if moral responsibility couldn’t possibly exist, it would be invented because people need to blame. This is in line with Voltaire’s commentary on God.
We can all look around and see how pervasive the god delusion is. Moral responsibility is even more insidious. In principle, moral gods were invented for just this purpose. An omnipresent judge was needed to keep the big house in check.
Where I Stand
From my perspective, I do feel that a person in the space of Dennett’s elbow room can have responsibility. Being a non-cognitivist, I have more difficulty accepting the arbitrary imposition of morality, but I understand the motivation behind it.
The problem I have is that mechanisms to ensure that the inputs and processes are all in order and there are no superseding instructions are not in place. Moreover, if the superseding instruction does not comport with the will of the power structure, it will be marginalised or ignored. This is a limitation of morality being a social construct, and none of this gets past the ex nihilo problem causa sui invokes, so we end up cursing the computer we’ve invented. O! monster of Frankenstein. O! Pygmalion.
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.
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.
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.
This Causa Sui video has been a month in the making. To be fair, I took holiday for a week and a half, but it was still a lot of work. After some editorial commentary, the transcript is available below.
The cows are back. Making videos on a budget is hard enough. With no budget, it’s harder still.
This started with a written transcript that was fed into Amazon’s Polly AI text-to-speech engine that’s seen many improvements lately. The results were output and saved as MP3 files that were imported into Movie Studio, a video editing application. I still use version 17, as I have been unhappy with the functionality of the newer versions. Even though they have been adding features and streamlining the interfaces, they seem to retire as many features as they add new ones, and the net result has not worked in my favour.
With an audio foundation in place, I scour the internet (and my hard drives) for visual content. Although I have purchased content in the past, this project contains all free assets. Admittedly, it would look better with paid-for assets as I forwent many nice visuals, it’s hard to justify on an unmonetised site.
Taking this approach, it’s a bit like patchwork with found objects. Having no creative team and possessing limited creative skills of my own, the original content is somewhat primitive. Even this could be improved, but that takes time.
I use a Bitmoji avatar to represent myself. This provides me with a quick way to capture poses and clothing options. When I feel like it, I’ll make small animations like eye blinks, but even this takes time.
For this Causa Sui video, I feel it goes long in some areas and short in others. There are several points that I don;t resolve the way I expected, as I was distracted by other life events, and as I was compositing the final video, I noticed that I had started narrative treads and not closed them. In other cases, I had intended to focus intently on a point, and I just didn’t. But after all of the time—and this distracts from everything else I am trying to accomplish—, I just wanted to get this over the finish line. Perhaps I’ll create some shorter content to resolve these points.
In the end, I feel it still conveys the points I want to make, even if not as sharply. Give it a gander, and let me know what you think.
In this segment of free will scepticism, we’ll discuss the causa sui argument of why a person cannot have the human agency necessary to be held ultimately responsible for their actions. We’ll also touch on counterarguments and possible social responses to persons exhibiting behaviours not in line with socially acceptable norms.
This is part of a series shining a light on the plausible scepticism if not impossibility of free will. If you are not already familiar with this space, I suggest you review some of the foundational content discussing Determinism, Indeterminism, and Luck; would-be agency and luck, and no-self, self, and selves. Of course, feel free to watch this and review the supporting content if you want to learn more details. Let’s get started.
Before we define causa sui and the argument underlying it, it’s important to note that it is agnostic as to whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic. My position is that the universe is at least weakly deterministic, even if we do not and cannot determine what the mechanism is. Any perceived indeterminism is simply an absence of knowledge. Were we to gain this knowledge, the indeterminate intermediate process would become determinate.
As the question of determinacy or indeterminacy is irrelevant, so is the question of compatibility or incompatibility. In an incompatible deterministic model, luck might be an interesting side trip, but my position isn’t concerned with luck and would fold it into determinism with the rest of indeterminacy.
Full disclosure: Humans are susceptible to pareidolia, and my contention is that free will is an illusion in this vein. I have adopted the position of Daniel Dennett that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain in a similar manner that wet is an emergent property of water. Water itself being an emergent property of the admixture of hydrogen and oxygen. This is not to argue that consciousness is somehow not real, but I do argue that consciousness has no mystical metaphysical properties that the discipline of psychology seems to subscribe to it. Consciousness is real. Free will is a figment.
So, what is causa sui, and what’s the big deal.
Spinosa may have been the philosopher to have introduced or at least elevated the notion of causa sui to us in its current context. Galen Strawson’s perspective is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. We’ll come back to both of these blokes presently.
Causa sui is Latin. It means self-caused.
Causa means cause. Sui means self. Most of us are aware of the notion of suicide—slaying one’s self. Let’s assume there is no etymological connexion to its homophone in chop suey, though I’m taking dibs on an erudite punk rock band name, Chop Sui.
Now that we’ve defined causa sui as self-caused—, or at least translated it from Latin to English, sa cause, en français—we can look at how this is problematic.
The causa sui argument against human agency and free will is not new. In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes,
The CAUSA SUI is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.
Freidrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Note that Nietzsche invokes God. Keep in mind that even if you believe in gods and divine intervention, that doesn’t yield human agency; that would be divine will.
Quickly reviewing the backstory, a self—or sui in this parlance—is the product of nature and nurture. Nature manifests in the form of heredity, genetics, and epigenetics; nurture is parents, peers, society, and authority.
As people like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt tell us, we come into this world with the operating system installed and a basic bootstrap programme. After this, we are autodidactic automatons. Of course, Pinker and Haidt would posit that humans are more than mere meat puppets, but that’s part and parcel of the causa sui point.
Elaborating further on this, at time-zero, the moment we take our first breath, we have not yet taken in any direct experiences from which to expand our base genetics. For the sake of illustration, let’s divide our universe into self and not-self. At the start our self has been given to us through no effort of our own. We’re the result of generations on generations of chromosomal exchange from some initial single-celled organism.
Then there’s nurture. One may argue that we have some experiences in utero, but these are substantially filtered. Once we see the light of the world, it’s showtime for real.
All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
Humans are input acquisition and storage machines. The brain is at once a difference and synthesis engine. Any outputs are a result of this process. Ostensibly, we are functions.
What humans are not are creation machines. Any so-called creation is just more synthesis. Even as we procreate to generate more humans, our dimorphism facilitates the progenerative blending of ova and spermatozoa. No creation, per se. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume suggested that the idea of a unicorn was just a recomposition of the idea of a horse with that of a horn. That’s as far as human creativity goes.
The challenge with causa sui is that we cannot cause our ‘self’. Let’s explore some examples.
Let’s take as an example a successful physician. This physician was raised by someone, attended school, progressing to medical school, passed any necessary praxis, exams, and certifications, fulfilled whatever internships and residencies, and acquired some office space. Some years later, this physician bought a home, got a dog, and had some kids. I’ll stop here. You render your own mental picture.
Perhaps, instead, we look at a music virtuoso. A child prodigy, s/he attends Berklee and graduates before reaching 10 years of age. S/he starts YouTube, Insta, and TikTok channels with millions of followers, and earns millions. You take it from here. One more.
This last person is raised by a good family, but she ends up on the wrong side of the law and in prison. All friends say she’s kind, caring, and generous, but she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At 20 she’s got a 20-year sentence to think it through. You can work this one through as well.
Let’s look into these scenarios and unpack these self-made individuals—or self-unmade if that’s how you’d prefer to characterise the last one.
Is our physician self-made? If so, how so? Let’s ignore the genetics and focus on the rest of the story. This person was sent to school. Local laws and parental concern all but ensured this. A certain teacher or teachers sparked an interest in medicine. Or perhaps it was from a book or television programme.
Perhaps a relative was ill and s/he became determined to help others.
This person was blessed with the appropriate cognitive abilities and their interest was fostered. The desire to succeed was instilled as was the drive and motivation. Nothing about this situation suggests causa sui action. Instead, everything is causa alii—caused by others, if I may misappropriate some Latin.
Any motivation was either genetically and physiologically inherent or acculturated or both. As the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone (or a turnip).
Of course, the second scenario plays out the same. Born with some natural ability. Could the parents not have nurtured this talent? Imagine this person was born with the propensity to be a virtuoso pianist yet never had come in contact with a piano? If a tree falls in the woods and no one was there to hear? How many people are in an analogous position?
Let’s turn to the dilemma of the prisoner. This person was instilled with whatever social cues she got. Perhaps they were exposed to bad influences. Perhaps their ‘processing unit’ is defective. Neither of these constitute causa sui events. As the saying goes, ‘she didn’t raise herself’.
Even if she did raise herself, she’d be excused as well. Some person raised by wolves in Avignon—or Tarzan of the Apes—is not expected to have acquired the rules of society.
Here’s an illustration:
First, there’s ‘sui’. That’s you.
But before you, there are the reagents. Ingredients.
The building blocks that make your physical ‘you’. And perhaps there are pre-natal environmental factors such as nutrition.
Once you are born, you begin to become a product of your environment as you absorb external forces. These might be the influence of your parents or siblings or other kit and kin.
Then you are exposed to teachers and peers. And society at large. And then there are perspectives formed by authority relationships.
We don’t even need to discuss the possible complexities and interactions between nature and nurture. These are interactive.
Perhaps you were genetically predisposed to grow no more than 168 centimetres, but you had poor nourishment, so this limit was never fully realised. Perhaps you have a blemish that makes you self-conscious. Perhaps, you’ve got a lisp or a limp. Perhaps you were in hospital due to an accident, and you lost a year at primary school. Perhaps a parent abandoned you and you were raised in a single-parent household. Perhaps as an infant both of your parents were killed by gunfire whilst watching an Independence Day parade in Highland Park Illinois in the United States of America.
Any of this might be true. But something that cannot be true is that you had any say in any of this. Causa sui. You cannot be a cause of yourself.
How did you become a virtuoso pianist?
Were you genetically predispositioned to have this talent? Probably. What if you weren’t driven to play? Again, what if you had never been introduced to piano but has this otherwise latent talent? Let’s say you are faced with a food choice for dinner. You’ve got pork chops, dog, or monkey brains. Personally, I’d forego all of these. If I were from some Asian countries, I may have a tough time deciding but only because they all seem delicious.
In economics, we discuss diminishing marginal utility for preferences. Faced with a choice, my preferences may differ depending on the situation. But given a situation where one has to make a choice repeatedly, each subsequent choice yields less utility or ‘happiness’.
You’re at a pub, and you mention that you’re a bit peckish. Your mate orders a pizza and offers you some slices. You haven’t eaten pizza in a while, so perhaps you eat a slice and are offered another when it’s gone. Your utility diminishes with each slice. The first one really hit the spot. The second one was pretty good too. You think twice about eating a third piece. And you forego the fourth piece altogether. Later in the evening, your mate with the hollow legs orders another pizza and offers to split it. You’re ever so slightly hungry, but you opt for pudding instead. This is your choice. But it’s not. It’s just that you’ve just eaten your fill of pizza and want something different.
Now the question is can you go against a craving? You are on a diet and are offered some dessert. You are craving it, but you exercise your free will and decline. Surely, this is free will, right? Not really. If you go for the dessert, your body is willing your action. But if you decline, it’s only because you have information that counters your craving. You need to look thin in a swimming suit at the weekend. Your choice will be guided by your assessment of prior and prospective considerations. You cannot make a choice absent these. Even if you decide to pick randomly or flip a coin. Firstly, the choice to flip is based on prior information. Secondly, the resultant choice is due to the coin rather than your free will.
Let’s summon Schopenhauer for a moment. He reminds us that whilst we can want what we will, we can’t will what we will.
This craving is not us. We aren’t in control. We only have control over whether we submit to the urge or not.
But that’s not correct either.
Picture this. You are at an ice cream vendor.
Chocolate or Vanilla
You always get chocolate, so you order chocolate. This is habit, not choice.
The vendor remembers they just got a shipment of passionfruit ice cream. Would you prefer that? It depends, but it doesn’t depend on you, save to say it depends on your experiences until now. If you’ve never had it before, it depends on your palate and whether you are open to new experiences. This is not something you have control over.
Let’s say your mates invite you to go skydiving. Again, you may seemingly be faced with a choice between declining the invitation and disappointing your mates. Whichever emotional response is stronger will guide your decision. This is based on experience. And this is important: even if you overrule your initial consideration, it’s because of the way you are that you are able to do that, but you had no say in the way you are. Each experience either leads you to a new experience or you experience something new and either like or dislike it.
Perhaps reading a certain book led you to enjoy reading. Given the decision to watch television or read, you may prefer to read. Some people do not enjoy reading, so given the choice, they’ll switch on the telly.
Galen Strawson formalised this by relating his so-called basic argument.
You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
What this is saying is that anything about you already influences what you do next and your choices. So, you as an entity may do something, engage in an activity, but it’s only because you’ve been programmed to do so on hardware you had no say in receiving.
To equate humans to computers is a little facile, but for our purposes, we can think of humans as analogous to processors or a mathematical function.
We are hardware with an onboard self-updating operating system. And we have software routines, all processed in our brains. In addition to capturing, processing, and storing data, this operating system and some of its software are also updated with experience, so we are getting updates and upgrades. Each of these might affect our next decision.
Sometimes input devices are faulty. Perhaps we are blind or colourblind. Perhaps we can’t hear or taste or smell. Each of these will affect in some manner what information we have to process.
In some cases, the processing unit itself is broken. With synaesthesia, we may see sounds, or smell colours.
But we may also just not process things correctly. Perhaps we can’t interpret social cues. Perhaps we can’t remember things. Or we have some other cognitive deficits. In these cases, we may have actually been exposed to socially accepted behaviours—don’t steal; don’t harm; obey traffic regulations, or whatever—, but we have difficulty processing these when the time comes. Or maybe our induction and deduction skills are diminished.
But my intent is not to make this about mental illness. The point is that persons considered to have full mental capacity and competency still have no ability to get outside of themselves to influence themselves. Full stop.
You may want to check out the video on agency that addresses what options society has in light of this situation. Keep in mind that I am not saying that you are stuck on a fateful path. We are not Oedipus. If you had not been exposed to the rules, then rehabilitation may be in order. If you may be a danger to yourself or the public, you may be sequestered or quarantined until such time you are no longer a risk. This introduces its own quandaries relating to retributive justice and challenges in policing the watchers, but these are beyond the scope of this segment.
The only escape from the idea of each human being the result of a closed system of nature and nurture is the notion of emergence that would say that the admixture of these ingredients would result in something new, that perhaps consciousness contains a sui somehow transcendent of the source elements, and this is where your human agency resides—sort of an emergent soul if you will. In the world of chemistry, the combination of sodium and chloride brings about table salt, having different emergent properties than the base ingredients, yet none of these properties is consciousness nor agency. Does this emergence work differently in the brain? This doesn’t sound plausible, but it is an idea to explore if you really feel compelled to argue agency exists in some form or fashion.
So, there you have it. You are you, but you don’t have any inherent agency. Or do you? Do you think there is any place for ‘sui’ to exist autonomously from your genetic and environmental makeup? If so, where is it, and how does it gain its independence.
The causa sui cows. I had intended to work the cows into the video. In fact, I spend a decent amount of time trying to clean them up, but as I left on holiday and returned, I realised near the end that they got left on the cutting room floor—even though they are still used as cover art. Perhaps I’ll consider a feature-length production for these characters in future.
This quote was made by Owen Jones in an article published in 2012. I share it because I feel the author is not only being cavalier but wrongly so. According to the bio at the end of the article, Owen D. Jones is a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. As I see it, the problem is not some theoretical—What is the sound of one hand clapping?—pseudo-problem. Human agency is the basis of our legal and jurisprudence systems.
Like good magicians, people like Owen want to redirect your focus to neuroscience and consciousness rather than have to explain how the causal engine that is the brain manifests itself ex nihilo.
Doubling down on my causa sui position, humans may be able to make constrained solutions, and yet they never have control over the constrained system they inherit. I discuss this at length elsewhere, but I wanted to address this comment forthright.
I’ll leave with a quote I tend to trot out a lot.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
— Upton Sinclair, prepared speech, I, Candidate for Governor (1935)
Free will is a necessary illusion for power structures to propagate or they will lose a cornerstone of their control mechanisms. And since humans want to feel they are in control, they are willing to accept the downside for the illusion of an upside.