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.
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.
Making video content for even the simplest of concepts is time-consuming, but I wanted to create some visual content. Even though this material is hardly controversial, I feel it is important to set the stage for more advanced conversations.
I am getting better at understanding how the video editor works, so subsequent videos should be of higher quality. As I use free repurposed video content, I am forced to accept what’s available. In plenty of cases, more apt content is available from Adobe or iStock, but I can’t justify purchasing content at this time—especially given that the channel isn’t even monetised. Patience.
Follows is the transcript I used as a guide.
Free Will Scepticism. Determinism, Indeterminism & Luck
In this segment of free will scepticism, I talk about what free will is, why it’s important, and why it creates challenges that lead to a debate that’s lasted millennia.
Once we’ve established a foundation, we’ll look at the nemesis of free will that is determinism and its attendant nuances—indeterminism and luck.
As we unravel this problem, we’ll evaluate the relationship between these and whether these competing concepts can coexist.
In future segments, I intend to dig deeper into the question of free will as it relates to human agency and moral responsibility.
Defining Free Will
A good starting point is to define our terms. As we’ll discover, a fundamental challenge in the free will debate is that there is no common, agreed-upon definition, so let’s at least put some on the table.
A quick Google search yields these two definitions.
the apparent human ability to freely and consciously make choices that are not externally determined
the doctrine that such human freedom of choice is not illusory Let’s break down the first one by touching on the terms. This is an ability. No controversy here. Choices are the focus of this ability, and this ability is limited to humans. Not everyone limits the notion of free will to humans. In general, the reason free will gets so much attention is in relation to moral choice. As we don’t generally impose morality on non-human animals, we can live with this for now.
Note that this definition concedes that this is just an apparent human ability. This is because some people believe that if free will exists at all, it is just an illusion.
This ability. I’ll drop the ‘apparent’ qualifier so I don’t come across like an attorney and their ‘alleged’ perpetrator. This ability needs to be made freely and consciously. Free means without restriction, and consciously means with conscious intent. The definition further qualifies the free and conscious choice-making by stating that these choices are not externally determined. A person cannot be under a spell, hypnotised, or driven by unconscious intents. We’ll eventually see that disagreement centres around each of these terms, freely, conscious, and externally determined.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, an excellent online resource, defines free will as ‘a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives’. The ability to freely make choices is a common thread for all of these.
Another way to think about free will is to ask if you could have chosen otherwise. This is a thought experiment, and we’ll spend more time on this later. If you could turn back the clock and rerun the scenario, could you have chosen otherwise. As Jerry Coyne put it, ‘if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different’. Let’s work through a simple scenario with no moral implications. All of the events of your life have led up to this moment. A server asks, tea or coffee. You choose tea. Black or lemon—or cream? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s re-run the scenario. Everything leading up to this server asking for your order is the same—the same seat at the same table, in the same restaurant, the same server. Even the same jelly stain on the curtain and the same blue Buick parked outside your window. And the same parent trying to quiet her unruly child. You get the idea. Everything until now has played out the same. Last time you ordered tea. Do you possess the free will to order coffee this time around? We don’t need to answer this question quite yet. Keep whatever idea you have and we can compare it against the competing perspectives.
You might be thinking, so what? Who cares? Why is free will so important?
Free will is not just some abstract philosophical concept. Philosophy gets accused of pondering topics with no application in the real world. What is the sound of one hand clapping sort of fare.
Free will is at the centre of human agency and autonomy. The only reason it makes sense to praise or blame someone is because they could have done otherwise. We might praise a robot that was programmed to rescue people from fires. Even if we marvelled at the achievement of the robot, we’d more likely praise the programmer or the operator over the robot.
Likely more important than praise is blame. Humans’ propensity for blame could be its own series, so let’s just consider the notion idiomatically. If a person is remotely controlling a robot and steers it into your table, spilling your tea, you may be miffed at the robot, but your blame will be aimed at the one who’s holding the remote controller.
After blame comes punishment, or reward in the case of praise. This is another subdiscipline in its own right, so let’s continue.
Many people just presume that free will exists, so where are the challenges? First, the definition of free will is unstable, and it has drifted over time. Sometimes this has been innocent enough whilst at other times the definition has been amended to suit an argument. Sort of moving the goal posts. So, there’s no standard definition. This means that I can accept the notion under one definition and reject it under another. This hardly makes for fruitful debate.
Related to these first two is that for some people, the concept is reduced to something so narrow, so laser-focused, that it doesn’t seem to matter in the real world. Daniel Dennett has said that he’d be willing to concede that one doesn’t have free will except in matters of decisions in the order of ‘one cube of sugar or two in your tea’ or ‘taking the lavender blouse over the lilac one’. If you contend that this is the limiting boundary for free will, sure. You’ve got free will, for what it’s worth.
Still others say that free will is nothing more than an illusion. That a person perceives having free will is akin to perceiving that the sun rises in the East. We know this not to be true, and yet it appears to be true. We even commit this faulty observation to language, and it’s difficult not to envisage it differently.
The strongest position against free will comes from the Impossibilists, who hold unsurprisingly, the belief that free will is impossible given what we know about physical laws and the universe. Galen Strawson is likely the most notable of these people.
Contrary to free will is Determinism. Defined, Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will.
Ostensibly, this is a strong belief in cause and effect. That every event is caused by a prior event. The implication is that if one were to turn back time to the Big Bang and let history run again, everything down to the smallest atomic movement would run the same course of events. Absolutely nothing would change. This includes any thoughts and decisions. Unchanged.
Given this worldview, some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.
Without going too deep, Determinism can be a view adopted from a sectarian or secular perspective. The sectarian narrative is that God created the natural laws and set the universe in motion. The secular vantage is that there are physical laws, and the big bang set the universe in motion. These days, not many people hold this view. Indeterminism is the reason.
Indeterminism is another idea cursed with multiple definitions. The name originated as a counterargument to Determinism, hence the ‘in‘ prefix in the name. Not determinism. Indeterminism says that deliberate choice and actions are not determined by or predictable from antecedent causes, or that although there may be deterministic behaviours in the universe, not every event has a cause.
I’d like to qualify ‘not every event has a cause’ to ‘not every event has a known cause’ or some events have probabilistic causes, hence indeterminate. There is a bit of overlap here with the notion of luck, and we’ll get to that presently.
Our knowledge of physics and the advent of quantum mechanics has put hard determinism out of favour. As we saw, under strict determinism, if we turned back time, the future would always unfold identically. Think of this as a film strip or a video. No matter how many times you replay it the events manifest the same way. You can warn the camper not to go down into the cellar alone, but every time, she will. You can almost think of this as a sort of fate, although one must be careful to note that rewinding and replaying to the parts we’ve already seen does not mean that we can predict what we haven’t.
Quantum physics notes that there are many events that are stochastic or probabilistic. So even if you rewound and played it again, it would be like the girl flipping a coin before opening the cellar door—or I suppose the director. Heads, she goes down. Tails, she remains up, or she gets a friend.
The less strict version of Indeterminism doesn’t say that nothing is determined. Rather, that there are enough probabilistic events that we can’t claim to know what’s going to happen next.
Then there’s luck. Luck is also indeterministic, but it tries to clarify some cases. By definition, luck is success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions. If you flip a fair coin or throw a fair die or pull the handle on a slot machine, you may win or lose, but this outcome had nothing to do with you except that you were there at that moment. But there is more to it than this because a strict Determinist might claim that the outcome was determined by the state of molecules in history, that if you reran history, it would unfold the same way.
Apart from the luck that we tend to think of in gambling—good luck and bad—, there is the notion of moral luck, that is treating people as objects of moral judgement even when what they do depends on factors out of their control.
Not all luck is created equal, so let’s look at the various flavours of luck. Most of these were articulated by Thomas Nagel.
Resultant luck is the way things turn out. This notion evaluates luck in reverse. It involves what is known as survivorship bias.
I’ll share a true story. An acquaintance of mine got married and took a honeymoon in Jamaica. On holiday, the couple ate some seafood. His wife became sick and was hospitalised. There she died. One can imagine a story with a happier ending, where the couple took holiday and won a large cash prize in a casino, again a situation that could not have happened unless they had happened to be there. In the first case, one might say she had bad luck. In the second case, her luck was good.
Circumstantial luck is the circumstance one finds oneself in. You had no control over how you got to a certain place, but because you got there, you are faced with a choice. The gist of this is that the choice would not have been given, so you would never have made it.
Perhaps, expecting you to be out, a burglar enters your home one evening and you confront him and he shoots you (or you shoot him; it doesn’t matter). Maybe you were driving to someplace and another vehicle crashes into yours, totalling it. This is circumstantial. You had no intention of getting into an accident. Had you not been driving, this could not have happened. Perhaps, because of the accident, you won a lawsuit that yielded you a lot of money; perhaps, your back was irreparably damaged. Circumstantial luck.
Constitutive luck relates to who one is or their traits and dispositions. Think of this as character. Some people are ‘born’ with a persuasive disposition. Some are born to excel at football or maths. Some are The Rain Man. This is the genetic lottery. Perhaps you want to be a famous singer. Only you can’t sing. And maybe you can sing, but you lack charisma.
Billionaire Warren Buffett readily concedes that he would not likely be a billionaire if he happened to be born in India rather than the United States. This is constitutive luck.
Present luck is about luck at or around the moment of a putatively free action or decision point. This is a term used by Levy, borrowed from Mele. At any point in time, you are who you are and where you are as a matter of luck. You were born in a place at a time in history into a family. Heidegger called this ‘thrownness’. A person is thrown into this world and has to survive or not on their own terms. In any case, this family moulded you and schooled you with whatever constraints that they may have had: money, class, access, location. All the usual suspects. You interacted with the kids who were available. You got whatever teachers you got, and on and on. I think you get it. None of this is within your control. Examples I think of are musical acts, bands like The Beatles, Korn, U2, and so many others that are comprised entirely or largely of friends. They just happened to be born in the same general time and vicinity. I imagine if either of these were different, they wouldn’t have manifested the same way. Imagine Mozart being born in the 21st century. Perhaps he’d be a YouTube star. Who knows?
Causal luck is how one is determined by antecedent circumstances. This is the type of luck most closely aligned with free will and determinism. Simply put, it says that everything that preceded you is outside of your control as is everything leading up to what you have become. Causal luck is about the directional relationship between cause and effect.
For the record, some view causal luck as redundant to the combination of constitutive and circumstantial luck. I think that’s a fair charge, but let’s continue and see how these concepts play together.
At the highest level, there are two competing perspectives. Free will and determinism are either incompatible or compatible. Let’s begin with incompatibilism.
As it would seem, this view holds that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive. This holds for indeterminism as well. One cannot simultaneously hold the view that everything is determined, and that one can still manage to have free will in this determined universe.
Sam Harris famously wrote, ‘a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings’. Harris is a neuroscientist and free will sceptic, who believes that free will is an illusion. And I was determined to not let this image go to waste.
Finally, we have compatibilism, where the belief is that free will and determinism can coexist—and do. There are two basic reasons this might be possible: metaphysics or emergence.
I’ll let you know that I find the metaphysical argument to be weak tea. The argument is that maybe there is a god or something not bound by the constraints of our universe, who can put ideas into your brain, thus manipulating your decision. You were going to order tea, but this intervention led you to order coffee. I think that this perspective falls on its face right out of the gate. If some force is controlling you, the resulting actions may not have been predictably determined, but neither are they caused by you. In this scenario, this force might as well be the person controlling the robot to spill your tea.
Then there’s emergence. Quickly, emergence is the notion that one can combine two or more elements with the outcome being a substance with different ‘emergent’ properties. An example most people are familiar with is the combining of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water. Two Hs plus an O creates H20. Hydrogen and Oxygen are both gasses, but water is a liquid with a further emergent property of being wet.
The argument is that this free will occurs independently of all the inputs and processes. If this were true, then free will and determinism could coexist. There is no evidence of this, and I’ll just leave it here. I intend to add to this by reviewing articles for and against free will and the compatibilist position.
Do you believe you have free will? If so, why. Are you a determinist or an indeterminist? Are you a compatibilist or an incompatibilist?
The title of this post is admittedly pompous, but I promise it’s relevant. I was chatting with an online colleague about the travails of my anti-agency journey. I’ll lay it out here as well.
About a month or so ago, I embarked to research on my suspicion that human agency is ostensibly hogwash*. I went down many rabbit holes to find the skeletal remains of many rabbits who have embarked on this path before me. I thought I had some unique epiphany and I would just have to articulate my position, but it turns out not to be the case. In fact, it’s a crowded space—lots of skeletal Leporidae. Moreover, many of these blokes are still alive and kicking.
As it happens, we all fit under the large umbrella of free will scepticism, but there are several flavours mostly differentiated by where one prunes the branch. Scepticism of free will is the common bond, but the differences, as one might expect, lead to different implications. Some branches still allow for responsibility—even absent agency—, others even insist on responsibility despite not having agency—and still others, like me, claim responsibility is impossible.
All of these perspectives hinge on the validity and strength of determinism or indeterminism. Soft determinism (AKA compatibilism) allows for free will and determinism to coexist, so that’s not on my radar.
As I’ve cited elsewhere, there are not many non-religious determinists these days, as the state of science and quantum theory pretty much obsoleted the idea. But by my reckoning, from the perspective of the would-be agent, it doesn’t matter because in either case, this person (or other animate objects—no need to overspecify) is affected by the causal chain and does not affect it. This lack of affectation is precisely why we can’t attribute responsibility or desert.
This is not just some philosophical mental masturbation. It turns out that entire legal frameworks are designed on the prevailing held beliefs, and the more degrees of free will a culture assumes people have, the more punitive that society is—and vice versa. More on this in a future post where I intend to write about Gregg Caruso’s perspective and where and how our positions deviate.
I just published a video on YouTube—just over 7 minutes long. I’ll be publishing the audio as a podcast and will share the script here as well.
Human Agency is an illusion. This is the end of the story. If you listen for a while, you’ll hear as I rewind and pull back the curtains.
Let’s get started.
Human Agency is an illusion.
Think of life as a motion picture that’s already been filmed. The ending is already known. The script has been written and performed by actors already chosen and hired.
I like this visual, but it’s not quite right. The end is not known in the same sense as that of the movie. It’s just as inevitable, just unknown.
Some might prefer to use the metaphor of cascading dominos. And this might even play better into the illusion. Some unforeseen force might intervene and stop the otherwise inevitable. But even this is beyond our control. Like an action-adventure story, we’re strapped into a runaway train and just along for the ride. This train might someday stop, but we’ll have had nothing to do with it. Enough of metaphors. What am I saying? Why am I saying it? And what does it mean?
Allow me to set up the scene. From there, I’ll elaborate.
For millennia, there’s been a debate over free will and determinism. These terms have been defined in different ways in an attempt to sway the argument for or against, one way or another. It turns out that for the human agency illusion, it doesn’t much matter, but it might still help to set the stage, so let’s establish some foundation. I like to consider free will and determinism as bookends.
Commonly, free will is the ability to make a choice and have had the ability to have chosen otherwise. That one can make this choice of their own accord or volition, is typically added for good measure. On the other hand, determinism says that everything that happens is determined by everything that has happened prior in a chain of cause and effect. Like dominoes falling one after another, so some event has caused another event since the dawn of time. Perhaps before time.
Some have argued that random events occur in our universe. Quantum theory suggests this. But that these events happen, doesn’t mean that we as humans have any say in the matter. This is what is known as indeterminism. Causes and effects are not so cut and dry. Some stochastic event serving as an exogenous factor manifesting as a pigeon, can swoop down and break the causal domino chain, but that doesn’t afford us human agency. A little more background. Some hold that free will and these alternatives are either mutually exclusive, or they’re compatible with each other. Not surprisingly, those who believe that these can coexist are called compatibilists, whilst the others are incompatibilists.
What I am saying is that if we allow that this wide shot might have validity, we can zoom in for a tight shot on the agent and notice that it doesn’t really matter. Some have said that the freewill versus alternatives challenge is a pseudo-problem. I am going to agree for the time being, if only for expedience. Before getting to the illusion of agency, let’s see why this situation creates problems.
Without getting too deep, humans seem to be wired to view their reality in a manner of cause and effect. Moreover, they seem wired to attribute blame based on this presumed causal relationship. Oksana hit a homerun. We should praise her. Raj robbed a store. We should blame him. Western society is constructed with this worldview, so we create rules and laws. We may even choose to codify how to rehabilitate or punish him. Or to reward her.
Without agency, there is no cause to praise or blame. Whilst I consider it a pathology, for better or for worse, given the human propensity to blame concomitant with the agency illusion, I don’t see this changing any time soon.
There are arguments around quarantining bad actors independent of their agency or lack thereof on the grounds of public safety. Even this logic has serious holes, but we’ll save that for another time. And now the big reveal. With a reminder that my intent is to not go deep, how can I say that human agency is an illusion? Let’s start with the science.
As a lifeform, humans are a product of heredity, genetics, and epigenetics. Essentially, DNA passes information from generation to generation. Besides determining our physical attributes—head, shoulders, knees, and toes, potential height and weight, pigmentation, sex, and so on, it also establishes our temperament—our base attitude and way we perceive and interpret the world. This doesn’t make us clones or robots or automatons, but it does comprise some percentage of what we are. Identity politics aside, we don’t have much control of our sex, finger count, or eye colour. Clearly, we aren’t talking about trans-humans and cyborgs here.
Genetics and so on aren’t the only factor. Behaviourists will remind us that the environment and circumstances mould us, too. Each of us is taught mores and moral codes; how to behave and act. We are raised in a structure comprised of family, school, church, peers, larger society, authority figures, and whatever else—ostensibly like a sausage being stuffed into a skin.
Beyond the genetics that we have no control over, we are products of our environment. These things interact, but there is nothing of us that we are responsible for creating. Despite the motivational tripe, we cannot create ourselves. This, too, is an illusion—delusion if I am being less charitable.
I’ll reserve elaboration for future content. In a nutshell, you’ve got no agency. Every choice you make is based on prior events. Even something as simple as choosing to order a chocolate or vanilla ice cream in a cup or a cone, sugar cone or waffle cone is predicated on some prior events, and you had nothing to do with them. You were a passive vessel.
I’ll leave with two relevant quotes.
A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.
And as Galen Strawson puts it,
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.
So there you have it. I hope you found this cursory treatment interesting and informative if not provocative.
I’m interested in hearing what you think. Do you think you have agency? Do we have free will, or is everything determined at the start? I didn’t even mention religion. Does that throw a spanner in the works? Let me know.
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.
One reason I prefer to look at agency is to avoid the claims and counterclaims of proponents of free will and of determinism, each having factions causing the other side of clinging to an illusion. As I’ve noted previously, at present I am a self-described soft-determinist insomuch as I declare myself to be agnostic.
My hypothesis is that humans have little or negligible agency. Under hard determinism, this would collapse from nil to zero. In either case, it is criminal to presume to be able to assign moral responsibility to any person.
Determinists charge free will advocates of being fooled.
Illusionism is the position that free will does not exist and is merely an illusion.
Many ancient and modern thinkers have made this claim. They have usually been strong determinists, from Hobbes to Einstein.
Since the discovery of irreducible quantum mechanical indeterminism, most scientists and some philosophers have come to understand that determinism is a dogmatic belief unsustainable from the evidence.
Adequate determinism is an emergent property in a universe that was initially chaotic and which remains chaotic at atomic and molecular levels. Consequently all physical processes are statistical and all knowledge is only probabilistic. Strict determinism is an illusion, a consequence of idealization.
Statistical knowledge always contains errors that are normally distributed according to a universal law that ultimately derives from the discrete quantum nature of matter.
The existence of this universal distribution law of errors convinced many scientists and philosophers that the randomness of errors was not real, that strict deterministic laws would be found to explain all phenomena, including human beings.
To the extent that randomness is needed to break the causal chain of strict physical determinism, many philosophers continue to think that free will is the illusion.
Peter Strawson said he could make no sense of ideas like free will and determinism. In this regard he was one with those English-speaking philosophers who, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought such questions were pseudo-problems to be dissolved by careful attention to actual language use.
Strawson made a contribution to the free will versus determinism discussions by pointing out that whatever the deep metaphysical truth on these issues, people would not give up talking about and feeling moral responsibility, praise and blame, guilt and pride, crime and punishment, gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness.
To be fair, I feel that Peter Strawson and I agree on the insufficiency of language to settle the matter of whether the universe offers free will or is deterministic, that questions such as this are pseudo-problems.
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.
Full Disclosure: I consider myself to be a determinist. I looked for something like Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability to evaluate where one might be oriented on a scale of free will to determinism to fatalism whilst also considering compatibilism.
Let’s lay some groundwork by establishing some definitions from most constrained to least:
Fatalism : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them
Compatibilism : a doctrine that maintains that determinism is compatible with free will
Determinism : a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws
Freewill : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
It seems that freewill and fatalism are bookends with compatibilism attempting to moderate or synthesise freewill and deteminism. But it also seems that one’s selection may be contexual. Ultimately, this argument is fraught with semantic challenges insomuch as some underlying concepts are yet unresolved.
Crash Course Philosophy does provides a nice summary of the challenges in defending even compatibilist positions away from detemininism and even fatalism.
As this video notes, our choices may appear to be free, but it doesn’t take much effort to perform a 5-whys investigation to remove anything but homoeopathic amounts of agency.
Taking a short example, let’s look at the cases of the trial judges mentioned by Sapolsky (Behave) and Kahneman (Noise). Given all of the factors entering into sentences, prior offences, sex or gender of either the defendant or the judge, education, income, and so on, but far the largest factor in determining the length or severity of a sentence was the time between the sentencing and the judge’s last meal—effectively their blood glucose levels.
Some may argue that this is a short interval, but behaviourists would argue that a person now is a culmination of all of their experiences to date. That the decision of the so-called criminal to rob the liquor store (going for the stereotype here) was not the result of low blood sugar. This may be true, but there is still an unbroken chain of confluent events that brought them to that place.
From a culpabilty perspective, even absent true agency, the offender should still be incarcerated or whatever to prevent this behaviour from repeating. Of course, if you believe in rehabilitation, you are necessarily a behaviourist in soem shape or form: the idea is to effectively repattern experience impressions. The other problem is one of probability. That you did X once, are you lilkey to do it again? If not, then there is no further risk to society, as it were. Given the probability of recitivism—and some argue that mass incarceration increases the probability or attempting criminal actions post-release—, is this even an effective deterence? It’s time to get out of the rabbit hole.
From my position, it is impossible to reconcile experience and freewill. The best you can argue is that one is free in the moment—like some strange improv exercise, where you are shown a film that stops abrutly, and you are instructed to act out the remainder of the scene. Is this free, or is this extrapolating on your experience.
Skipping to fatalism, how probable is it that absolutely everything is determined. Reality is just a film we are both in and observing or experiencing, but all of it is already laid down. We are just unawares. Every strange plot twist and early exit was not only already scripted, but it’s already been captured. There is no room for improvisation or flubbed lines. There is no opportunity to go off-script. Even these words are predestined. Even unpublished thoughts were not meant to be published.
There is no way to test this sort of system from inside the system, and there is no way to get a vantage above it, so here we are.
The notion of determinism affords humans some modicum of agency, perhaps akin to one part in a trillion trillions. Practically, we are taking credit for a butterfly effect—and punishing for this degree of freedom. As Sapolsky has noted, most instances of perceived agency are trivial. We can ‘instruct’ finger movement with our brain. Ostensibly, we think: move finger; bend; point; stop. And even so, what was the cause of the thought to move the finger? Was there truly a non-causal event?
Cognotive dissonance ensures that we can’t allow ourselves to be NPCs or automotons. We have to omuch hubris for that. We must have some free will. Some religions say we not only have agency here in this life but that we chose the life to begin with. Even so, we’ve not seen the script in advance; we’ve merely chosen which lessons we want learnt.
So what about compatibilism? Sort of, who cares? Whilst I can define some interstitial state between free will and determinism, it seems that it would not be even tempered or would otherwise skew heavily toward determinism.
What keeps me from being a hard determinist is that I hold out hope for statistics, chaos, and stochasticism. One might argue in return, that these, too, are determined; we just don’t see the underlying connection. And that’s my cognitive cross to bear.
To be fair, it seems that the notion of free will or even compatibilism are secondary, let’s say, reactions to the need for culpability, for moral responsibility. Societies are built upon these notions, as are legal systems. Necessary ingredients to invent are:
Agency and Volition
Choice, Motivation, and Intent
Responsibilty and Blame
None of these actually exist, so they need to be invented and constructed in order to associate self-control to actions. In fact, we have insanity escape clauses to recognise that there are cases where control is lost, whether temporarily or permanently, or never had in the first place for any number of ‘reasons’. At core, these attributes are necessary to exert power in a society. The next goal is to convince the actors or subjects that these things are ‘real enough’— as the saying goes, ‘good enough for the government’.
Even if we accept these things at face value, the interpretation and processing of these are different animals still. The notion of Will itself is likely speceous or another fabricated notion. Perhaps, I’ll address Will on another day. Probably not, as all of this is distracting me from my language insufficiency work.
When I think about free will, it is foisted on humanity in the same manner as gods and religion. With gods, we have been defending against theism for millennia. The gods fetish and free will are inextricably linked. As with the chicken and egg connundrum, the question is whach came first. Is God a reaction to fee will, or is it the other way around. Did we create free will to allow for responsibility and then fabricate Supreme busy bodies to act as ultimate judges? Or did we create the gods and build out the myth of free will to accommodate punishment of deviant behaviour. Or are these just parallel constructions? Enquiring minds want to know.