In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.
To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.
I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.
Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.
To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.
To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool. But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.
Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.
Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.
Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.
As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.
So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory. In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.
I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.
But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.
All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.
I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.
So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.
Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?
Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.
Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.
Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.
So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment. Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.
Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.
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.
I mentioned in my last post about how Artificial Intelligence discovered a new variable—or, as the claim suggests, a new physics. This was a tie-in to the possible missing dimensions of human perception models.
Without delving too deep, the idea is that we can predict activity within dynamic systems. For example, we are all likely at least familiar with Newtonian physics—postulates such as F = ma [Force equals mass times acceleration or d = vt [distance equals velocity times time] and so on. In these cases, there are three variables that appear to capture everything we need to predict one thing given the other two that need to remain constant. Of course, we’d need to employ calculus instead of algebra if these are not constant. A dynamic system may require linear algebra instead.
When scientists represent the world, they tend to use maths. As such, they need to associate variables as proxies for physical properties and interactions in the world. Prominent statistician, George Box reminds us that all models are wrong, but some are useful. He repeated this sentiment many times, instructing us to ‘remember that models are wrong: the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful‘. But no matter how hard we try, a model will never be the real thing. The map cannot become the terrain, no matter how much we might expect it to be. By definition, a model is always an approximation.
In the Material Idealism post, the embedded video featuring Bernardo Kastrup equated human perception to the instrumentation panels of an aeroplane. Like the purported observer in a brain, the pilot can view the instruments and perform all matters of actions to manipulate the plane, including taking off, navigating through the environment, avoiding obstacles, and then landing. But this instrumentation provides only a representation of what’s ‘really’ outside.
Like mechanisms in the body, instrumentation can be ‘wired’ to trigger all sorts of warnings and alerts, whether breached thresholds or predictions. The brain serves the function of a predictive difference engine. It’s a veritable Bayesian inference calculator. Anil Seth provides an accessible summary in Being You. It relies on the senses to deliver input. Without these sense organs, the brain would be otherwise unaware and blinded from external goings on.
The brain cannot see or hear. It interprets inputs from eyes and ears to do so. Eyes capture light-oriented events, which are transmitted to the brain via optic nerves, and brain functions interpret this information into colour and shape, polarisation and hue, depth and distance, and so on. It also differentiates these data into friend or foe signals, relative beauty, approximate texture, and such. Ears provide a similar function within their scope of perception.
As mentioned, some animals have different sense perception capabilities and limitations, but none of these captures data not also accessible to humans via external mechanisms.
Some humans experience synesthesia, where they interpret certain stimuli differently, perhaps hearing colours or smelling music. We tend to presume that they are the odd ones out, but this assumption does not make it so. Perhaps these people are actually ahead of the rest of us on an evolutionary scale. I suppose time might sort that one out.
But here’s the point. Like the pilot, we can only experience what we are instrumented to experience, as limited to our sense perception and cognition faculties. If there are events not instrumented, it will be as if they don’t exist to the pilot. Can the pilot hear what’s happening outside?
This is the point of the AI experiment referenced above. Humans modelled some dynamic process that was presumed to be ‘good enough’, with the difference written off as an error factor. Artificial Intelligence, not limited to human cognitive biases, found another variable to significantly reduce the error factor.
According to the theory of evolution, humans are fitness machines. Adapt or perish. This is over-indexed on hereditary transmission and reproduction, but we are more vigilant for things that may make us thrive or perish versus aspects irrelevant to survival. Of course, some of these may be benign and ignored now but become maleficent in future. Others may not yet exist in our realm.
In either case, we can’t experience what we can’t perceive. And as Kastrup notes, some things not only evade perception but cannot even be conceived of.
I am not any more privileged than the next person to what these missing factors are nor the ramifications, but I tend to agree that there may be unknown unknowns forever unknowable. I just can’t conceive what and where.
I’ve just finished with Time Reborn. I wasn’t expecting to be converted to Smolin’s proposition that time is real rather than constructed. I enjoyed the book, and he provided a solid foundational understanding of the conventional scientific perspective (circa 2013, when the book was published).
I understand that Smolin is a professional physicist with a PhD and his grasp of the fundamentals is solid, and I am a peripheral scientist at best. I fully grant that I may be on the left of the Dunning-Kruger curve and making rookie mistakes.
The biggest contention I have is that he insists that everything needs to have a reason, citing Leibnitz. His argument is based on the question of why is our universe so perfectly structured, that it would be improbable to have happened purely by chance.
Whilst I agree that everything has a cause, reasons are an artifice imposed by humans. In practice, where reasons don’t exist, we make them up. This is how we get false theories and gods. Smolin does discuss false theories of the past and attempts to claim that the prevailing theories occupy this space whilst his theory should replace it.
Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life.
My reaction is that it just is. Whether Roger Penrose is correct in saying that the universe is continually recreated and destroyed, rinse and repeat, the reason the universe is constructed in such an (improbably) ordered fashion that can sustain life is that there is no reason. Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life. It does. We are here to question, and so we do. End of story.
We can make up all sorts of stories, whether through science, religion, or some other origin myth. None of them is provable. As Smolin notes, this is a one-time event. If it is destroyed, so are we and our memories. If life is sustainable in a future—or even parallel—configuration, we’re sent back to start where we can fabricate new stories.
Perhaps in another universe, it will be configured so differently that some other sort of life is created, perhaps this life will not be DNA-based and be anaerobic? Who knows?
It seems that he has an interest in reserving a place for human agency, which has little room for movement in current scientific models. His model provides this room. Moreover, he further thinks that even in current models, human agency should be injected into the models. I suppose he is not familiar with Keynes’ animal spirits.
For some reason, he decided to devote the final chapter to the hard problem of consciousness. This was a particularly hot topic around that time, so he didn’t want to miss the boat. The long and the short of it, he didn’t think the qualia-consciousness answer would be found through physics—though he reserved that there was a non-zero probability that it could be. He posits this as an existential, experiential challenge, and science is not designed to address such affairs.
I’ve spend some hours cobbling together another video that I labelled Free Will Scepticism: Would-Be Agency & Luck. I’ve embedded it here. The script is below.
Human agency does not exist. Free will is an illusion. Like the appearance that the sun rises in the east and sets and the west, we only appear to have free will.
There are some nuances and varying degrees of this belief, but if one believes in the scientific notion of cause and effect, that every effect is the result of a prior cause of causes, one inevitably ends up in this camp.
Without going into details because the focus of this segment is on luck, I’d still like to set the stage for the uninitiated.
Regarding the universe, we recognise a relationship between cause and effect. If we rewind to follow this logic back to the beginning of time and started again, we’d end up in exactly the same place. This is known as deterministic. What happens next is determined by what happened before.
And this is not just a scientific view. Those who believe that God caused the universe can arrive at this same place.
Owing to advancements in scientific thought, most philosophers today do not believe that the world is deterministic, per se. Given theories of quantum mechanics and probabilistic outcomes, they believe in so-called natural physical laws, but probability is also part of this model.
One may strike a billiard ball with a cue stick to cause it to strike another ball, knocking it into a pocket. In our knowledge of the universe, this is unsurprising. If one set this up mechanically, leaving no room for variation, we could run this scenario over and over again forever, and the ball would go into the pocket every time. The outcome is established by the laws of physics.
Actually, this is just another illusion. The laws of physics cause nothing. They are just a way of describing how things unfold in our universe. But just like saying that the sun rises in the east, we can employ idiomatic language and people know what we mean.
This was an illustration of determinism. Indeterminism accepts these same laws, but it adds an element of probability. In our mechanised billiards example, perhaps a ball is randomly rolled across the table in such a way that it might interfere with the path of the balls.
If the random ball does not interfere with the path, its presence is irrelevant. If it does interfere, there are a few different outcomes.
One, it knocks a ball off course, so the final ball does not go into the pocket.
Two, its path is such that although it collides with a ball, this event does not interfere with the final ball ending up in the pocket, so a person fixated on the pocket might not notice anything more than a slight delay in the occurrence of the event.
The second scenario depicts indeterminism.
In both scenarios, the ball expected to go into the pocket is the would-be agent. As illustrated, the ball itself has no agency. None of them does. Its fate, to borrow a term steeped in metaphysics, is entirely subject to the actions before it. And then there’s chance, so let’s continue.
Humans are ostensibly automatons, subject to their genetic and environmental programming with no degree of free will. Let’s say that in a given context each person can be described by a certain wave function. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just pretend that it can be represented by a sine wave. As with any waveform, we can illustrate it by plotting it on a 2-dimensional plane, having amplitude on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis. Let’s consider this to be analogous to a person’s biorhythm, and let’s further consider that this represents the would-be agent’s mood or propensity to behave a certain way.
Practically, there might be more functions, so let’s just say that this is the average of all of these other functions—perhaps the other functions being how much rest was had the night before, when and what the last meal was, traffic encountered on the way to work, and any number of other personal considerations.
For any stable wave, we can plot the period from peak to peak or trough to trough. Let’s use trough to trough to represent a period of a day but from 2:30 am to 2:30 am rather than from midnight to midnight. This is one complete cycle. The offset is just to more easily facilitate the scenario.
Given this frame, we’ll put noon in the centre between the midnights as expected.
For the purposes of illustration, we’ll draw a horizontal line to represent a threshold depicting a change in disposition. We’ll use this later.
Finally, let’s show time increments by hour, so we now see 24 hours in a day. And we can see that at noon the wave peak rises above the threshold and falls below the threshold again at 5 pm.
Let’s presume that this wave function represents that of a criminal trial judge. There is support for this notion as published in Daniel Kahneman’s 2021 book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, wherein he notes that trial judges are almost as predictable as a watch, that their sentences are more correlated with time of day and the aforementioned factors than anything related to law—save for the laws of time, I suppose.
Remembering that—like all people—this judge is an automaton. Let’s build some character—rather characteristics. Judge Judy believes that people are fundamentally bad and not to be trusted. She believes that they have free will and are accountable for their actions, though she does also allow for extenuating circumstances when considering sentencing, the usual suspects—bad childhood, chemical dependency, and whatnot. People who believe more strongly in free will are more likely to believe in harsher punishment. Judy is no exception.
Using this function as a guide, above the threshold represents her propensity for leniency. She tends to take lunch regularly before noon and is more lenient for a period after lunch. Data show that this effect is closer to a couple of hours after the midday meal, but we are simplifying.
Zooming in, let’s just consider a single day in the life of another would-be agent who as it happens will be interacting with our Judge Judy. I’ll take this opportunity to introduce the work of Neil Levy.
Neil is Head of Neuroethics at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes and Director of Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.
He is the author of Hard Luck, five previous books, and many articles, on a wide range of topics including applied ethics, free will and moral responsibility, philosophical psychology, and philosophy of mind.
Levy’s book promotes the concept that even if we allow for human agency, much of this supposed agency is undermined by luck. This will not only become evident in the scenario we are working through, but as a human, you may come upon a decision-point, where probability and luck come into play. You have no control over what ideas pop into your head—or don’t—and in what order. The choice you ultimately make is limited to what these ideas are and how they do or don’t manifest. Without going too far astray, perhaps you’ve constructed a false dichotomy.
Perhaps you are confronted by a stranger in a dark alley. You observe that it’s a dead end. The stranger, asking for money, approaches you in a manner you interpret as menacing. As he reaches into his coat, you pull out your concealed weapon and fatally shoot him.
He was unarmed. No longer in panic, you realise that you are not in a dead-end alley.
When the police arrive, they inform you that the person you killed is known` by law enforcement and social services, who have been keeping an eye on him because he had limited cognitive capacity and resided in a group home. Not only was he not armed, but the detective on the scene noted that what he was reaching for were pens with inspirational inscriptions that he routinely sold to earn money.
Whilst you may not have been able to determine that he was otherwise harmless, it was your ‘luck’—bad luck—that you didn’t happen to see that you were never cornered in the first place.
Nevertheless, you are arrested.
In another scenario, perhaps there are two judges. Judge Judy and Justice Joe. As it happens, Justice Joe has a cycle reverse to Judy. Where Judy’s mood is better after lunch, Joe is fasting, and his mood gets worse. This means that your fate now is not only tied to the time of day but it’s also linked to the luck of which judge will hand down your sentence.
If you are a strict determinist, then the “universe” has already determined which judge will sentence you.
If you are an indeterminist, then the universe will flip a coin. And the probability of a case running long or short might determine the time of day.
In the end, as are you, the judges are slaves to their programming, and any alteration of inputs will just be processed through whatever they’ve become until that point. They have no more free will than you do. The die has already been cast.
Do you believe you have free will? If so, why. Are you a determinist or an indeterminist? Or are you a compatibilist who believes that free will and determinism can coexist in the same universe?
Einstein was wrong. Time is not the relative factor in space-time. Space is. Time is constant. Here’s a lecture on the topic of the book.
As a result of a discussion with a colleague, on the possibility of variability or mutability of so-called physical laws, he recommended Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. He mentioned that it would be suitable as an audiobook. Since I had a credit on Audible, I decided to use it so I could listen to this without deep scrutiny and a need for taking notes.
Whilst running errands, I listened to the Preface and Introduction. I stopped at the start of the first chapter, and am debating whether to continue. Given his setup, I don’t believe I am Smolin’s target audience. Many of the beliefs he is attempting to dispel, I already don’t hold. Yet I don’t feel that I need to hold time as a constant to hold them. He seems to feel otherwise.
For the record, Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, who has written several books in this space. Quickly, recapping some of his points:
He provides examples of various illusions humans tend to be swayed by:
Matter appears to be smooth but turns out to be made of atoms
Atoms seem indivisible but turn out to be built of protons, neutrons, and electrons
Protons and neutrons are further made of still more elementary particles called quarks
The sun appears to go around the Earth, but it’s the other way around
Smolin relates that the prevailing perspective today is that time is an illusion—name-dropping Plato and Einstein, who hold this view. He conveys that he used to share this belief, but now he disagrees—whence the book. He tells us:
Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.
— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn
Next, he posits that some people believe in timeless events—events outside of time, eternal and not a function of time. Here’s where he goes off the rails in my book.
“We perceive ourselves as living in time, yet we often imagine that the better aspects of our world and ourselves transcend it. What makes something really true, we believe, is not that it is true now but that it always was and always will be true.”
Evidently, he feels or felt this way. I am sure many others. I am not among them.
“What makes a principle of morality absolute is that it holds in every time and every circumstance.”
My position is that all morality is a social construct, so this doesn’t resonate with me.
“We seem to have an ingrained idea that if something is valuable, it exists outside time.”
Again, I am not in his intended audience.
“We yearn for “eternal love.” We speak of “truth” and “justice” as timeless.”
Love, truth, and justice are all human constructs—weasel words.
“Whatever we most admire and look up to — God, the truths of mathematics, the laws of nature — is endowed with an existence that transcends time. We act inside time but judge our actions by timeless standards.”
Yet again, I am unburdened by these beliefs.
Nothing transcends time, not even the laws of nature. Laws are not timeless. Like everything else, they are features of the present, and they can evolve over time.
— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn
I think that this quote is a reason this book was recommended to me. I do believe that the properties that comprise laws can evolve over time. I’m not sure if this is by a probabilistic process or something else. There are a few possible implications. One is that the laws at the onset of the universe may have been different, making the understanding of that time more challenging if not impossible. I don’t know if I believe in multiverses, and I doubt I may ever live long enough to discover. However, even if there is only one universe, per the name, perhaps universes can exist sequentially and when one dies another appears with a different set of initial conditions and properties. Borrowing from evolution, perhaps these survive or perish based on the viability of this combination.
Smolin goes on to posit that, ‘thinking in time is not relativism but a form of relationalism‘.
“Truth can be both time-bound and objective when it’s about objects that exist once they’ve been invented, either by evolution or human thought.”
— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn
I’m not sure he is going to define truth, but I believe he conflates moral truths with axiomatic or tautological truths. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because both are constructed.
Smolin makes it clear that he is not a determinist, but unless you take the view he is proposing, as a physicist, you almost have to be. As he says regarding Determinism, theoretically. a person could suss out a mathematical equation to predict every future event. He also considers this belief to be a metaphysical vestige of religion.
According to [the] dominant view, everything that happens in the universe is determined by a law, which dictates precisely how the future evolves out of the present. The law is absolute and, once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.
— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn
He continues to describe a deterministic system without mentioning indeterminism, which may be a more prominent belief given what we understand about quantum mechanics. He claims that this perspective diminishes time for several reasons. Inflating or at least elevating time is important for his thesis, and I am thinking that this is more an act of wishful thinking.
He takes a stab at the inherent reductionism of physics—it reduces everything to parts until there are no longer subparts, at which point the process fails—and explains that by adopting this approach, one needs to get outside of the universe to make some evaluations, but this is impossible. And this might be a true statement, but so what? The answer is not to make up a story that creates an environment where that’s no longer necessary.
Smolin reiterates over and again about timeless laws in a time-bound universe, but I question his notion of timelessness. He admits that he has no grand theory—just an idea he hopes others can pursue and build upon. Emergent properties appear to be an emerging theme.
Leibniz is next up, in particular his principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz’ vision is a relational universe composed of a network of relationships—the space is simply the absence of things. He contrasts this with Newton’s view that space is absolute and serves as the container for things. He sets up a future chapter that he says establishes that Leibniz’ vantage precludes the possibility of absolute time, but I don’t see this as a challenge for those of us who believe that time is constructed in the first place.
The Newtonian view prevailed until Einstein resurrected Leibnitz with his general relativity theory of space and time. The trending vogue is about relationalism, whether biology or information science.
He cites the challenges of maintaining Locke’s views on autonomy and personal liberties in a deterministic world (again leaving indeterminism unmentioned).
And he’s back on the emergence of emergence. (I was in the midst of writing a post on emergence when this interrupted my flow. I suspect it should be forthcoming in time.)
As it turned out, I ran another errand and listened to the first chapter of part 1. It is about gravity and parabolas, but I shan’t recount it here, save to note that he seems to be of the opinion that many people have the desire to transcend the bounds of human life. He may be right. I am not one of these people.
Robert Kane’s chapter in Four Views on Free Will is titled Libertarianism, and I’ve just finished it. I’ve been writing in the margins, and I’ll summarise my thoughts here.
As I wrote in my last post, I don’t find the Libertarian position on free will and agency compelling. Kane made some interesting points, but none persuaded me to buy what he was selling. The biggest challenge I had was to maintain focus because I think he was chasing red herrings—at least given my focus on agency. He spent a lot of time tearing down determinism and indeterminism instead of building up his own position. I feel the debate centres around agency. I waited for him to explain how this agency operated, but he just assumes agency—or at least a self to possess agency—from the start. I am not convinced. If you are interested, my more detailed commentary follows.
The Rest of the Story
My intent at the start is to approach this chronologically as I retrace my marginalia, hoping to recall whatever prompted my notes in the first place. I’ll be quoting or paraphrasing Kane’s positions to serve as a reference in the event you don’t have access to the book.
1, Determinism and the Garden of Forking Paths
Kane starts off by mentioning that determinism implies that ‘given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future‘. Within this unvarying environment, he writes, ‘We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents‘. I don’t disagree with either of these points, and, as agents, we are ‘capable of influencing the world in various ways‘.
Kane introduces a garden of forking paths illustration, which I’ve recreated here.
He uses this as a visual decision tree, where an actor traverses the branches and makes decisions at the various vertices. To breathe life into this tree, he gives us one of several forthcoming examples. He introduces us to Jane.
In his scenario, Jane is faced with a decision with one of two possible outcomes, and ‘she believes there is more than one possible path into the future available to her and it is “up to her” which of these paths will be taken‘. He continues, ‘This picture of different possible paths into the future is also essential, I believe, to what it means to be a person and to live a human life‘.
And herein lies the rub. Jane is not making these decisions in a vacuum. She is a puppet to forces beyond her control. I shouldn’t be so hard on psychology and Freud, but as Luke 23:34 of the Christian Bible relates, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
Then Kane reinforces that if determinism were true that Jane would not have free will before bringing up the idea of responsibility, that ‘free will is … intimately related to notions of accountability, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness for actions‘. I agree with Kane here.
Next, he invokes an emotional appeal-to-nature argument, asking us to imagine a ‘young man [who] is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death.’ He suggests that our tendency to blame this man is natural, but that we might search for mitigating circumstances that might account for his actions. He leaves us with a question, Did these influences entirely determine his actions, or did they “leave anything over” for him to be responsible for?
I have this question, too, but as I said, this is an appeal to emotion in the way Westerners have been conditioned to believe. There is little reason to accept this as some sort of universal law or principle.
2. Modern Challenges to Libertarian Free Will
He starts this section as follows, ‘I will be defending the libertarian view of free will in this volume. We libertarians typically believe that a free will that is incompatible with determinism is required for us to be truly morally responsible for our actions, so that genuine moral responsibility, as well as free will, is incompatible with determinism.’
He continues his setup, ‘A goal of this essay is therefore to consider this modern attack on the traditional libertarian view of free will and to ask how, and whether, it can be answered. Much is at stake, it seems to me, in knowing whether we do or do not have a freedom of the will of the ultimate kind that libertarians defend. The modern attack on it has two parts‘.
‘Part 1: The first prong of the modern attack on libertarian free will comes from compatibilists, who argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, determinism does not really conflict with free will at all.‘
‘[A]ccording to compatibilists, esoteric questions about whether determinism is true or not – in the physical or psychological sciences – are irrelevant to the freedoms we really care about in everyday life. All the varieties of free will “worth wanting” (as a modern compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, has put it) do not require the falsity of determinism for us to possess them, as the traditional libertarian view of free will suggests.‘
He informs the reader, ‘Influential philosophers of the modern era, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, were all compatibilists‘.
Kane ends part 1 with, ‘If compatibilists are right, we can have both free will and determinism; and we need not worry that increasing scientific knowledge about nature and human beings will somehow undermine our ordinary convictions that we are free and responsible agents.’
I agree with this statement. It’s also why I consider agency to be the pivotal target, not determinism.
In part 2, he writes ‘The second prong goes further, arguing that libertarian free will itself is impossible or unintelligible and has no place in the modern scientific picture of the world.‘
He conveys that ‘modern defenders of libertarianism, such as Immanuel Kant, have argued that we need to believe in libertarian free will to make sense of morality and genuine responsibility, but we can never completely understand such a free will in theoretical and scientific terms.’
This is a good point, and Kant is correct. As a moral non-cognitivist, I feel that morality is a non-sensical human social construct. Inventing free will to make sense of another invention doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Kant finishes with an appeal to noumenism, yet another concept I’ve got no time for.
Next, Kane introduces us to another foe of free will, indeterminism. ‘Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance. So if free actions were undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance.’
He ends this section with two issues a libertarian must address:
The Compatibility Problem: free will really is incompatible with determinism
The Intelligibility Problem: indeterminism can be made intelligible and how, if at all, such a free will can be reconciled with modern scientific views
3. Is Free Will Incompatible with Determinism?: The Consequence Argument
Kane opens with a plea, ‘[L]ibertarians who believe free will is incompatible with determinism can no longer merely rely on intuitions about “forking paths” into the future to support their view that determinism conflicts with free will. These intuitions must be backed up with arguments that show why free will must be incompatible with determinism.‘
If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.
Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, p. 16
Then he sets up The Consequence Argument:
There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature.
There is nothing we can now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.
In other words, we cannot now do otherwise than we actually do.
Indeed, I agree in principle with the logic, but I’ll reiterate that I feel that the entire determinism angle is a red herring. Next, Kane goes into a discussion about the Transfer of Powerlessness Principle.
In essence, TP ‘says in effect that if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.‘
As I don’t think it’s’ important to my ends and I agree with Kane’s critique of this tailing logic, if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.
Finally, he argues that there is a likely insurmountable semantic challenge that accepting one meaning of ‘can’ and ‘power’ (and some other terms) will determine [pun intended] if one is a compatibilist or not.
4. Ultimate Responsibility
Carrying over from the previous section, Kane reminds us that ‘as a result of this impasse, philosophical debates have multiplied about just what “can” and “power” (and related expressions, such as “could have done otherwise”) really mean‘. But he also concedes that ‘The problem is that focusing on “alternative possibilities” (or “forking paths” into the future) or the “power to do otherwise” alone, as the Consequence Argument does, is too thin a basis on which to rest the case for the incompatibility of free will and determinism.’
He sets up his position.
Free will seems to require that open alternatives or alternative possibilities [AP] lie before us – a garden of forking paths – and it is “up to us” which of these alternatives we choose.
Free will also seems to require that the sources or origins of our actions lie “in us” rather than in something else.
This second point he terms ultimate responsibility [UR].
‘The basic idea of UR is this: To be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient cause or motive for the action’s occurring.‘
‘To be ultimately responsible for the choice, the agent must be at least in part responsible by virtue of choices or actions voluntarily performed in the past for having the character and motives he or she now has.‘
This is what I am waiting for him to resolve. A red flag that has me on alert is the term character. This is on my list of weasel words. He also cites Aristotle as a reference—also relative to character—, so that’s a double red flag in my book.
He returns to his post that free will ‘does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. I call these earlier acts by which we formed our present characters “self-forming actions,” or SFAs‘.
My causa sui post already illustrates that Kane doesn’t actually answer the question of how the self forms the so-called self-forming actions. He just invents the term, appeals to idiomatic notions of self and declares victory. I recent post discussed the challenges with self.
In the sense that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he name-drops Daniel Dennett and a story Dennett had cited involving Martin Luther initiation of the Protestant Reformation. Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Kane then argues that Dennett’s deterministic interpretation is incorrect, but given that Dennett is a compatibilist, he doesn’t care if Luther was free or determined in a deterministic universe.
So the ability to do otherwise (“could have done otherwise”) or AP, says Dennett, is not required for moral responsibility or free will.
In the end, we are back into a language game—a semantic pissing match.
Continuing with Luther, Kane concedes, ‘We can grant that Luther could have been responsible for this act, even though he could not have done otherwise then and there and even if his act was determined. But this would be so, if UR is required, only to the extent that Luther was responsible for his present motives and character by virtue of some earlier struggles and self-forming actions.‘
I’m still left wondering how and when Kane is going to prove this argument.
Kane provides more context by telling us that an agent requires sufficient cause of motive, but he never does define sufficient. He is also aware that a causal chain can lead us back to the dawn of time, so he’s devised an angle:
‘The only way to stop this regress is to suppose that some acts in our life histories must lack sufficient causes altogether.’
Perfect. Let’s see how this works.
Now he’s bringing in his SFAs and character. No thank you, please.
‘UR makes explicit something that is often hidden in free will debates, namely that free will – as opposed to mere freedom of action – is about the forming and shaping of character and motives which are the sources or origins of praiseworthy or blameworthy, virtuous or vicious, actions.’
This is where the psychobabble word salad comes in full force. It feels that Kane is employing circular reasoning and claiming that free will is necessary to shape the character necessary to have free will. Perhaps I am missing something.
‘If persons are responsible for the wicked (or noble, shameful, heroic, generous, treacherous, kind or cruel) acts that flow from their wills (characters and motives), they must at some point be responsible for forming the wills from which these acts flow
This ‘forming’ argument feels like a non-sequitur. Let’s keep going.
5. Ultimate Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities
‘When one argues about the incompatibility of free will and determinism from alternative possibilities or AP (as in the Consequence Argument), the focus is on notions of “necessity,” “possibility,” “power,” “ability,” “can,” and “could have done otherwise.” By contrast, the argument from UR focuses on a different set of concerns about the “sources,” “grounds,” “reasons,” and “explanations” of our wills, characters, and purposes. Where did our motives and purposes come from, who produced them, who is responsible for them?’
These are my questions as well. He provides his answers to his own question:
‘To understand the connection between AP and UR, alternative possibilities and ultimate responsibility, we must first note that having alternative possibilities for one’s action – though it may be necessary for free will – is not sufficient for free will, even if the alternative possibilities should also be un-determined. This can be shown by noting that there are examples in which agents may have alternative possibilities and their actions are undetermined, and yet the agents lack free will.’
I can’t wait.
Next, he witters on about God and determinism and leaves us with the conclusion that ‘persons in such a world lack free will‘. Whew! Good thing.
I haven’t really addressed the issue here, but the very concept of will doesn’t sit right with me. It feels a bit magical, but let’s just leave that here.
This assertion relies on volition, cause, and motive—volition and motive feeling pretty weaselly.
Around here, he conveys a story about an assassin that I feel totally misses the mark. Pun intended because in this story, the assassin intent on shooting the Prime Minister gets an involuntary twitch and kills the aide instead.
‘UR captures this additional requirement of being the ultimate source of one’s will that is lacking in this imagined world. For UR says that we must be responsible by virtue of our voluntary actions for anything that is a sufficient cause or a sufficient motive (or reason) for our acting as we do.’
Kane says that the will of the assassin is sufficient motive and reason. I disagree. I’ll circle back to this in a moment with a robot assassin analogy. Kane goes on to say ‘Anything else he might do (miss the prime minister, kill the aide) would be done only by accident or mistake, unintentionally or unwillingly‘.
This second part is particularly interesting to me. If his intent was to kill the Prime Minister and failed but killed the aide without intention, does this mean he’s not culpable?
Kane tells us that ‘we are interested in whether they could have acted in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally, rather than only in one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally and in other ways merely by accident or mistake, unintentionally or irrationally.‘
Kane revisits UR: If (i) free will requires (ii) ultimate responsibility for our wills as well as for our actions, then it requires (iii) will-setting actions at some points in our lives; and will-setting actions require (iv) the plurality conditions, the ability to act in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally and rationally.
I’m feeling strongly that a person agreeing with this line of argumentation has to already agree with the underlying conditions. In fact, one cannot will oneself to believe in free will if one doesn’t and vice versa. I’m not inclined to agree.
Kane injects pangs of conscience into the equation. I’ll ignore it, as conscience in this context is wholly constructed. I understand that Kane wants to say that conscience is an impetus for free. I’ll disagree and level it at that.
‘If we are to be ultimately responsible for our own wills, some of our actions must be such that we could have done otherwise, because some of them must have been such that we could have done otherwise voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally.‘
We are still in agreement. Now what?
He closes with a dual regress of free will. We need to be ultimate sources of our actions and ultimate sources of our actions wills.
6. The Intelligibility Problem: Is Libertarian Free Will Possible?
‘Can we make sense of a free will that requires Ultimate Responsibility of the kind described in the previous section? Can we really be the ultimate designers of our own ends and purposes? There are many skeptics about free will who think not. They argue that being the ultimate source of one’s will and actions is an incoherent and impossible ideal…‘
Please. Are we there yet?
The “Intelligibility Problem” says that incompatibilist free will requires that ultimate responsibility is intelligible or possible and can be reconciled with modern scientific views of human beings.
Kane articulates how indeterminism and probability might affect free will and how, given the ‘exactly same past’, can possibly arrive at different outcomes on our forking paths. He provides an example. I’ll relate it, but mostly to critique his narrative.
Recalling the forking paths we have two scenarios. The premise is that, in the first scenario, John has to decide whether to travel to Hawaii or Colorado. Based on the state of his person, he chose Hawaii.
This can be illustrated about be following the green line from point T0 to T4b. At decision point T3a, John had to choose between Hawaii and Colorado. T4a represents his Hawaii preference.
Still looking at the same chart (above), under the second scenario, something ever so slightly changed and John could have chosen the top branch rather than the lower branch, thus choosing Colorado instead.
‘“If the past had been just a tiny bit different, then John might have sensibly and rationally chosen differently (chosen Colorado instead).” Determinists and compatibilists can say this.’
The problem (referring to the chart below) is that a different choice at T2, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, would have put him on a different path, choosing T3b on the lower branch over T3a on the upper branch. Therefore, the T4b option stemming from the upper T3a branch is not the same T4c option on the lower branch. Instead of a choice of travelling to Hawaii or Colorado, the choice may have between chicken or steak for dinner.
Whilst it is conceivable that the Colorado versus Hawaii decision might still occur, the person at T3 is not the same person.
Kane reintroduces Kant’s noumenal self by name, but he quickly discounts it on the grounds of obscurantism or mystery or “panicky metaphysics”. He’s right in doing so.
As Kane also admits creating the external actors tend to render supporters of these notions as nutters. Besides, if the external actor is the agent, it’s no different than a god doing it.
Before we move to the next section, I want to return to the assassin. My argument is that anyone, including the assassin, is a product of their environment. Full stop. Therefore, one cannot be responsible for anything. To illustrate this, let’s replace the human assassin with a robot assassin. We want to be sure the robot doesn’t twitch and miss.
The robot gets into place and does the assassination task as designed without a hitch (or a twitch). Is the robot in any way responsible for its actions? Not many would argue that it was. It was a victim of its own circumstances. Here, one might argue that the robot has no conscience, and so has no ability to do otherwise. The robot has been programmed. Even if this robot could acquire new information, it could only interpret it relative to the information and processes it already had. The human is no different. The human cannot transcend itself to invoke a different outcome. And any new input would. by definition, be an external influence.
7. Indeterminism and Responsibility
Kane wants to set the stage, so he conveys that ‘The first step in this rethinking about the Intelligibility Problem is to note that indeterminism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsible … only those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely the “will-setting” or “self-forming actions” (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility.’
Kane believes that ‘believe these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become.’ Thus, he reintroduces character.
Next, he makes an assertion that I disagree with: ‘The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves.’ It should be obvious that I object to the notion of soul-searching from the start.
Kane advances another assertion: ‘Just as indeterminism need not undermine rationality and voluntariness of choices, so indeterminism in and of itself need not undermine control and responsibility.’ I suppose it may ‘need not’, but let’s see if it does.
Then he introduces an example from communications theory, suggesting that a person can willfully concentrate on the signal to overcome noise: ‘Whether you are going to succeed in solving the problem is uncertain and undetermined because of the distracting neural noise. Yet, if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, we have reason to say you did it and are responsible for it, even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle that you overcame by your effort’. My margin note reads ‘silly’. I’ll just leave it at that.
8. Parallel Processing
I’ll admit at the start, that this section was just an annoyance, adding little to Kane’s position. My commentary will be brief.
Kane brings in his SFAs and suggests that if we are at a decision point with two (or multiple) options, each option is processed on its own thread. Reflecting on a woman faced with a decision, he tells us that ‘the choice the woman might make either way will not be “inadvertent,” “accidental,” “capricious,” or “merely random” (as critics of indeterminism say) because the choice will be willed by the woman either way when it is made, and it will be done for reasons either way – reasons that she then and there endorses.‘
NB: Underlined words in the paragraph above represent Kane’s italicised words in the chapter text.
Here, Kane continues down a rabbit hole wintering on about SFAs. I’m not convinced. It’s getting late. I’m getting cranky. I’ll will myself to continue. [Yes, that’s a joke.]
9. Responsibility, Luck, and Chance
Kane now wants to remind us that although one might ‘still find it hard to shake the intuition that if choices are undetermined, they must happen merely by chance – and so must be “random,” “capricious,” “uncontrolled,” “irrational,” and all the other things usually charged‘, and that ‘such intuitions are deeply ingrained‘.
Fair enough. Also interesting is how ingrained the sense of self and soul is, but never mind that for now.
Kane continues to unwind the bias he notes. His punchline is this:
‘(Imagine the assassin’s lawyer arguing in the courtroom that his client is not guilty because his killing the prime minister was undetermined and might therefore have failed by chance. Would such a defense succeed?)’
The ‘law’ is not seeking this truth. it is seeking blame and will go to great lengths to do so. Law is about closure. This feels like a strawman on a non-sequitur. Nothing to see here. Let’s keep on.
Kane’s final blow is that if ‘they endorsed the outcomes as something they were trying and wanting to do all along, knowingly and purposefully, not by mistake or accident‘, then they are responsible.
This reminds me of something that may or may not have been uttered by the Dalai Lama explaining the mechanics or scoring system that karma operates by. There are effectively three dimensions of karma:
Intent is the desire to do something, whether to give a gift or assassinate a Prime Minister.
Action is the activity itself: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.
Reaction is your emotional response: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.
Exploring this, say a person gains or loses a karmic point for each good or bad thing and receives no point where an event did not happen.
Let’s start with the assassin.
If your intent is to kill someone, you lose a karma point. Sort of a thought crime, I guess. [-1]
If you do kill the Prime Minister, you’ve lost another point. [-1]
Now, if you feel good about your success in this case, you lose yet another point [-1], netting you with minus 3 [-3] all tolled. However, if you feel remorse, you gain a point [+1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].
Let’s say you have no intent to kill the Prime Minister, yet you lose control of your vehicle and smash into them. S/he dies instantly.
You get no intent point—positive or negative. 
You lose a point for the action. Sorry, Charlie. [-1]
Now, if you feel remorse about this event, you gain another point [+1], netting you with zero  all tolled. However, if you didn’t really like the Prime Minister and start singing—even in your head—Ding, Dong, the witch is dead, you lose another point [-1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].
Let’s try gift-giving.
If you want to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]
If you don’t follow through, you lose a karma point [-1], leaving you with zero . There is no cause for reaction, so you remain at zero.
Let’s up the game a bit and instead of just wanting to buy a gift, you promise to buy one.
If you promise to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]
If you don’t follow through, you lose a point [-1], leaving you with zero .
If you feel good about the ensuing disappointment, you lose another point. [-1]
If you feel bad about it, you regain a karma point [+1], so you are ahead of the game. And this, boys and girls, is how you game karma. But karma is ahead of your sorry ass, and it takes back the point. And then it takes away a penalty point if you don’t feel sorry about being a jerk.
But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, I do not endorse Kane’s endorsement idea.
10. Choice, Agency, Efforts, and Causes: Further Objections Considered
‘If indeterminism is involved in a process (such as the woman’s deliberation) so that its outcome is undetermined, one might argue that the outcome must merely happen and therefore cannot be somebody’s choice. But there is no reason to assume such a claim is true‘, Kane relates. More subterfuge.
‘Self-forming choices are undetermined, but not uncaused‘, Kane says. Tell me more.
‘They are caused by the agent’s efforts.’ Them’s fighting words.
He continues, ‘Perhaps indeterminism does not undermine the idea that something is a choice simply, but rather that it is the agent’s choice. This objection raises important questions about agency. What makes the woman’s choice her own on the above account is that it results from her efforts and deliberation, which in turn are causally influenced by her reasons and her intentions (for example, her intention to resolve indecision in one way or another). And what makes these efforts, deliberation, reasons, and intentions hers is that they are embedded in a larger motivational system realized in her brain…
‘A choice is the agent’s when it is produced intentionally by efforts, by deliberation and by reasons that are part of this self-defining motivational system and when, in addition, the agent endorses the new intention or purpose created by the choice into that motivational system as a further purpose to guide future practical reasoning and action.’
My reaction is that this so-called agent is just an invention.
‘Since those causally relevant features of the agent, which can be counted among the causes of the woman’s choice, are her reasons or motives, her conscious awareness and her deliberative efforts, we can also say that she is the cause of the choice by virtue of making the efforts for the reasons and succeeding.’
Next, Kane conveys a situation where a guy smashes a glass table and blames it on chance events, ending with this argument.
‘We tend to reason that if an outcome (breaking a table or making a choice) depends on whether certain neurons fire or not (in the arm or in the brain), then the agent must be able to make those neurons fire or not, if the agent is to be responsible for the outcome.’
Let’s see if he comes up from this rabbit hole in the next section.
11. Responsibility and Control: Three Assassins
Watch out. Kane is doubling down—nay, tripling down—on the assassins. His primary argument appeals to emotion and indoctrination—the social programming of the reader.
‘Is the assassin less guilty of killing the prime minister, if he did not have complete control over whether he would succeed because of the indeterminism in his neural processes?’
Robert Kane, Four views on Free Will
Kane recalls the dilemma that I discussed in my Citizen Kane post of a woman to continue to the office or to help someone being mugged, and asserts (without evidence) that this is volitional and ‘is coming from her own will‘.
‘There must be hindrances and obstacles to our choices and resistance in our own wills to be overcome, if we are to be capable of genuine self-formation and free will. Compare Evodius’s question to St Augustine (in Augustine’s classic work On the Free Choice of the Will).‘
This seems like plausible logic, I suppose. But it doesn’t follow from this definition that self-formation—genuine or otherwise—or free will exists.
I tuned out at the God talk.
12 Conclusion: Complexity and “Being an Author of One’s Own Story”
Finally. The last section of this chapter before I turn to John Martin Fischer’s chapter on Compatibilism.
Kane introduces the complexity of chaotic systems next.
‘Agents, according to this modern conception with ancient roots, are to be conceived as information-responsive complex dynamical systems. Complex dynamical systems are the subject of “dynamical systems theory” and also of what is sometimes popularly called “complexity theory.” They are systems (which are now known to be ubiquitous in nature) in which new emergent capacities arise as a result of greater complexity or as the result of movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium toward the edge of chaos.’
‘Only when creatures attain the kind of inner complexity capable of giving rise to conflicts in their wills, or motivational systems, between incommensurable values does the capacity for self-formation characteristic of free will arise.’
Supposing a reaction by critics, he asks himself, ‘Even if one granted that persons, such as the businesswoman, could make genuine self-forming choices that were undetermined, isn’t there something to the charge that such choices would be arbitrary?‘
His response is that we can’t really answer this question and tries to redirect the reader’s attention to the semantics of the word arbitrary. In the end, his final position is that this is the right approach because he can feel it in his bones.
For years—decades even—I identified as an Existentialist, and I still have an affinity for some of the works of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus. I had read some Richard Wright. I never read Kierkegaard directly, and I may never. And of course, there’s proto-Existentialist Nietzsche. I’ve encountered to various degrees Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Jaspers but not deeply.
The draw for me is that we create our own existences, but I came to feel this was at odds with Structuralism. Per my previous post, I don’t have much faith in the Agency seemingly required by Existentialism.
In Statistical analysis of variance (ANOVA), there is a notion known as degrees of freedom. This is how I view Agency. Per my Testudineous Agency post, after we account for genetics and environment, how much agency effectively remains? This is the degree of freedom. Under hard determinism, degrees of freedom are zero.
What else can we strip away after genetics, epigenetics, indoctrination, environment, and other mimetic and learned behaviours? And what remains after we do?
I don’t believe that humans have the agency presumed they have, so I’d like to set out to prove it—at least rhetorically. In the ages-old battle between free will and determinism, I’ve tended to lean toward the determinism camp, but there is something keeping me from gaining full membership. I feel that proving hard determinism may be too hard a nut to crack, so I am aiming at just the agency aspect.
There are two major themes in my thinking.
Humans have no material agency
Power structures require the presumption of agency
Although this concept has been rattling around my brain cage for a while and I still have a ways to go, I feel it will be helpful to sketch out my ideas. I feel inspired by people like Robert Sapolsky and Daniel Dennett. And I feel I can draw insights into counter-arguments from people like Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and even Steven Pinker. I feel that my experience in behavioural economics may be useful for additional context—people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Dan Ariely. But I feel disheartened when it appears that Galen Strawson and his father before him, Peter Strawson, people much more connected and elevated in the field have been treading the same territory for decades — over half a century — ahead of me, thankfully beating a path but not necessarily making much headway. Perhaps I can build upon that foundation if not substantially at least perceptibly. Of course, the seminal work by Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty.
We may act as we will, but we cannot will as we will.
Besides the aforementioned, a correspondent has suggested other source references. He shares: Physics, including quantum mechanics, is fully Lagrangian. According to Stanford’s Leonard Susskind, Lagrange derived his formalism from the principle of ‘Least Action’. Jean Buridan’s principle of ‘Equipoise’ renders a Lagrangian model of the world perfectly deterministic. So, the physical domain is not probabilistic; and all indeterminacy is actually epistemic indeterminability. He also suggets Thomas Hobbes’ “De Corpore”.
About my second point, my corresponent agrees:
I think your “meta” is right. We feel that we are “free agents”, and we don’t know to what to attribute our feeling that we freely choose; so we imagine that we have “free will”. In my view it also doesn’t exist – we really are, as Sapolsky describes, zombie robots – we just don’t (and cannot) know it. Free will is thus a mere (but compelling) illusion on both individual and emergent scales. And yes again: all of morality, jurisprudence, etc., depends on it.
My correspondent is a professional philosopher who shall remain anonymous until such time as he agrees, if ever, to make his identity known. I am quiet aware that some of my ideas are contentious and polemic. Not everyone wishes to be mired in controversy.
Humans Have No Material Agency
Humans have little to no agency. This is the point I am making in my Testudineous Agency post. From what I know until now, this likely qualifies as soft determinism, but this might shift as I acquire new nomenclature and taxonomic distinction. I’ve discovered this taxonomy of free will positions, though I am not well enough versed to comment on its accuracy or completeness. For now, it seems like a decent working model to serve as a starting point, but I am fully cognizant of possible Dunning-Kruger factors.
In essence, hard determinism says that the world is not probabilistic. Some event triggered the universe as we know it, and it will unfold according to the laws of physics whether or not we understand them. A weaker form, soft determinism, allows for some probability and trivial ‘agency’. I feel that Dennett supports soft determinism. I feel that because we, as ‘individuals’, are a confluence of multitudinous factors, we have little agency (interpreted as responsibility). More on this later.
Power structures require the presumption of agency
To be honest, the free will debate is only interesting to me in context. To me the context is power. The ‘meta’ of this is that society (and human ‘nature’) seem to need this accountability and culpability, but it doesn’t actually exist, so it is created as a social construct and enforced in a Foucauldian power relationship through government through jurisprudence mechanisms.
This is the part of the debate I haven’t heard much about. Sapolsky did write in Behave, chapter 20X, that criminal justice systems need to be reformed to account for diminished agency, and I’ll need to return to that to better comprehend his position and assertion.
The rest of the story
As a handy reference, these are the authors and books I’ve encountered to date and in no particular order:
I’ve got a lot of essays and lecture notes not referenced plus general content from Reddit, Medium and other blogs sources, YouTube, podcasts, and so on. I probably should have documented some Classical philosophers, but I don’t generally find their argumentation compelling, though I might add them later.
The aim of this post is just to capture my intent—if it is indeed my intent. Oh, the questions and implications of a lack of agency. Please stand by.
In chapter 71, Ultimate Responsibility, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, author and philosopher, Daniel Dennett presents a counterargument to the notion that an agent, a person, is not absolutely responsible for their actions. He questions some premises in the ‘the way you are’ line of argumentation, but I question some of his questions.
Here is a nice clear version of what some thinkers take to be the decisive argument. It is due in this form to the philosopher Galen Strawson (2010): 1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are. 2. 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. 3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all. 4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 395). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
The first premise is undeniable: “the way you are” is meant to include your total state at the time, however you got into it. Whatever state it is, your action flows from it non-miraculously.
Dennett and I are in agreement with Strawson. There is not much to see here. It’s akin to saying the now is the result of all past events until now. This is “the way you are”.
The second premise observes that you couldn’t be “ultimately” responsible for what you do unless you were “ultimately” responsible for getting yourself into that state—at least in some regards.
This second premise asserts that one cannot be responsible for any action that one had no part in performing. Two scenarios come immediately to mind.
First, you are not responsible for being born. As Heidegger notes, we are all thrown into this world. We have no say in when or where—what country or family—or what circumstances.
Second, if one is hypnotised or otherwise incapacitated, and then involved in a crime, one is merely a cog and not an agent, so not responsible in any material sense.
But according to step (3) this is impossible.
Whilst Dennett fixates on the absolute aspect of the assertion, I’d like to be more charitable and suggest that we still end up with a sorites paradox. Dennett will return to this one, and so shall I.
So step (4), the conclusion, does seem to follow logically. Several thinkers have found this argument decisive and important. But is it really?
As Dennett invalidates step (3), he insists that the conclusion is also invalid. He asserts that the notion of absolute responsibility is a red herring, and I argue that Dennett doesn’t get us much further, perhaps redirecting us with a pink herring.
I’ve created an image with tortoises to make my point. There are actually two points I wish to make. The first point is to determine where the responsibility is inherited. This point is meant to articulate that the world can not be strictly deterministic and yet one can still not have significant agency. The second point is that culpability is asserted as a need, and acceptance of this assertion is the problem.
The image depicts an evolution of an agent, with time progressing from left to right. The tortoise on the right is a product of each of the recursive tortoises to its left. The image means to convey that each subsequent tortoise is a genetic and social and social product of each tortoise prior. Of course, this is obviously simplified, because tortoises require pairs, so feel free to imagine each precedent tortoise to represent a pair or feel free to add that level of diagrammatic complexity.
This is not meant to distinguish between nature and nurture. Instead, the claim is that one is a product of both of these. Moreover, as genetic, epigenetic, and mimetic influences are transmitted in family units, they also occur through social interaction and the environment, as represented by the orange and green tortoises.
The point here is that if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability? Each person is an emergent unit—autonomous, yes, and yet highly programmed.
If I programme a boobytrap to kill or maim any intruder, the boobytrap has no agency. I assert further, that the maker of that boobytrap has no more responsibility than the killing device.
But who do we blame? you ask, and that’s precisely the problem. Asking questions doesn’t presume answers. This is a logical fallacy and cognitive bias. This heuristic leaves us with faulty jurisprudence systems. Humans seem hardwired, as it were, to blame. Humans need to believe in the notion of free will because they need to blame because they need to punish because vengeance is part of human nature to the extent there is human nature. There seems to be a propensity to frame everything as a causal relationship. Dennett calls this the Intentional stance. To borrow a from Dennett…
This instinctual response is the source in evolution of the invention of all the invisible elves, goblins, leprechauns, fairies, ogres, and gods that eventually evolve into God, the ultimate invisible intentional system.
Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 374). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Sins of the Fathers (and Mothers)
Let’s wrap this up with a sorites paradox. As I’ve already said, I agree with Dennett that the absolute aspect is unnecessary and undesired. The question remains how much agency™ does a person have once we account for the other factors? Is it closer to 90 per cent or 10 per cent? Apart from this, what is the threshold for culpability? Legal systems already have arbitrary (if not capricious) thresholds for this, whether mental capacity or age, which basically distils back to the realm of capacity.
I have no basis to even venture a guess, but that’s never stopped me before. I’d argue that the agency is closer to zero than to one hundred per cent of the total, and I’d propose that 70 per cent feels like a reasonable threshold.
I could have sworn I’d posted a position on this after I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. Perhaps it’s never made it out of drafts.
In closing, I don’t think we need to settle the question of determinism versus free will to recognise that even without strict determinism, personal agency is still severely limited, and yet as our political systems presume a level of rationality that is not apparent, so do legal systems presume a level of agency not present.