Citizen Kane

Among my newfound acquaintances, I can now add Robert Kane. I have yet to read him directly, but I have on queue two publications:

I’ll probably read the Four Views on Free Will content first. Meantime, Derk Pereboom, who also contributed to Four Views, presents Kane’s position in a video, so I’ll illustrate Perebooms perspective as well as how my own thoughts might dovetail.

Meaning in Life & the Illusion of Free Will (Derk Pereboom)

…a lot of prominent advocates perhaps most notably Immanuel Kant didn’t think that he could show that we have libertarian freedom, but he did think that we should believe that we have it for the sake of morality…

The libertarian perspective is that we look at all causation in terms is events, and some people believe that all causation is by way of events so, in the case of agents, they can be the cause of events.

Freedom consists in the fact that when decisions are caused, they’re caused indeterministically by other events.

Pereboom coveying Kane’s libertarian concept of freedom

This is the idea of indeterministic causation. Not all causations in deterministic, but yet all causation is by way of events so events indeterministically cause decisions, and this is what allows them to be free.

Pereboom explaining indeterministic causation

Borrowing Pereboom’s rendition of Kane’s account, Anne is on her way to work, and she sees a woman being accosted.


At this moment, she has a choice of taking one of two possible options:

  1. Prudential Choice: Continue going to her office (desire to please her boss) [p = 50%]
  2. Moral Choice: Intervene in the molestation (desire to help the victim) [p = 50%]

Pereboom’s Critique

What settles whether Anne stops to help or continues to the office?

the agent can’t have enough control for freedom in the event-causal picture

Derk Pereboom

Whether she stops or not is not up to these agent-involving events to settle whether she stops or not; after all the agent involving events render the two decisions equally probable, fifty-fifty, in our simplified example. So the answer, Pereboom thinks, has to be nothing; there isn’t anything that settles which way the decision goes because the only causation involving the agent consists in events evolving the involving the agent. and by hypothesis, all the events involving the agent conspire to render each of the two possible decisions equally probable. So, Pereboom wants to say that in the event-causal picture nothing settles which decision occurs—and in particular, the agent doesn’t settle which of the decisions occurs,
so he believes that the agent can’t have enough control for freedom in the event-causal picture. There’s not any event-causal picture that solves this problem.

The problem with this event-causal libertarian view is that the agent disappears at the crucial time. We want the agent to settle which way the decision goes, but the event causal picture doesn’t allow this. So, we should reintroduce the agent in a different guise. And as agent—or as agent cause—we’re gonna say look not all causation is by way of events some causation is by way of agent, so as a substance not just as involved in events causes the decision. So, we’re going to give Anne, as agent-cause, the power to settle which way this decision goes; and we’re going to give her this power in the following guise: we’re going to say she’s got the power to settle which way the agent—which way the decision—goes. By what? By causing a decision; and by causing a decision without being causally determined to cause it. This is what Immanuel Kant calls transcendental freedom, and he thinks that this is the only kind of freedom that’s going to get us moral responsibility. It’s giving to the agent qua agent—not as involved in events but giving the agent qua agent—the power to cause an action without being causally determined to cause it. Now this is a very special sort of power.

Do we have this kind of power? Kant said, ‘Well, we have no evidence that we have this kind of power. We can’t even show that it’s possible that we have this kind of power, but we can show that it doesn’t contradict anything we believe, so we should believe it for moral reasons.’ He thought, It’s really important for us to believe that we’re morally responsible. And he also thought that the moral law kind of falls away unless we’re free in this sense. Kant thinks we have ample practical reason to believe that we’re agent-causes.

Pereboom (simplified), op. sit. ( cue @ 21:30 )

But there are certain kind of empirical worries that Kant was well aware of for the hypothesis that we’re agent-causes.

Kant says the physical world is governed by deterministic laws. So, suppose we believe that we as agents have this power of transcendental freedom— the power to cause an action without being causally determined to cause it. At some point there’s going to be an interaction between the agent as cause and the deterministic world—maybe at the juncture between the agent and the agent’s brain. Maybe you can think of agent-causes as non-physical things that can affect the physical world. Suppose we think of it that way. Kant says the physical world is governed by deterministic laws.

Suppose this free agent causes the decision to raise her hand without being causally determined to cause it. Kant says it has to be reconciled with the following fact that we know from Newtonian physics—the physical world is governed by deterministic laws. How can this be? It would seem that if the free agent freely, in Kant’s sense, causes the decision to raise their hand that the hand raising isn’t going to be causally determined. But Kant said that physics shows that the laws are deterministic and that all physical events are governed by deterministic laws.

Pereboom (simplified), op. sit.

One thing you can say is that it just so happens that every free decision ever made just happens to dovetail nicely with a determined physical world so each of the how many free decisions have been made in human history according to, say, 17 trillion. Each of the 17 trillion decisions happens to dovetail with the way that physical bodies have been causally determined since the beginning of the universe

Pereboom (simplified), op. sit.

Pereboom says this involves coincidences too wild to be believed. It’s not really credible. Kant at a certain point says well this problem can be solved because when an agent—a free agent—makes a decision, that free agent changes the universe back to the beginning of time. Kant says that in his The Critique of Practical Reason. I say that’s a pretty high price to pay for a belief in transcendental freedom. It seems implausible.

Quantum Physics

At 26:26 Pereboom turns his attention to indeterminism and quantum physics—the main premise being that quantum mechanics replaced the mechanistic certainty of determinism with probability.

If I don’t expand this copy past here, you’ll just have to watch the vid.

Next, I want to pick up on criminal punishment and retributive justification. Pereboom suggests that we can adopt a sort of quarantine approach to criminals even if we can’t assert that they deserve it, but I have serious concerns of the lack of justification here. (cued for me @ 30:15)

Wrong-doing, indignatio, and emotion. Emotion: Non-reactive. Problem with Love.

Hard Incompatibilism

In the debate between free will and determinism, we have a second layer, perhaps better characterised as a meta-dimension we tend to label compatibilism and incompatibilism.

Saving any technical definitions of free will and determinism, these things are generally seen as mutually exclusive situations, which is to say that if we have free will, then the happenings of the universe and of us by extension are not determined. If the universe is deterministic, then we have no free will. This is incompatibilism.

Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism can simultaneously coexist. I’ll spare the details for now.

Free will and moral responsibility — Derk Pereboom (11:42)

Cornell philosopher Derk Pereboom presents his position here. I’ve only recently been exposed to Pereboom by a colleague, who recommended Pereboom’s Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life when I told him about my Anti-Agency pursuits. Pereboom’s name began to crop up more and more frequently as I dug deeper, but I want to give credit where credit’s due.

Ostensibly, Pereboom defends Spinoza’s position ‘that due to very general facts about the nature of the universe we human beings lack the sort of free will required for moral responsibility in the sense at issue.’*

Compatibilism is a synonym for hard determinism, but Pereboom calls ‘the resulting variety of scepticism about free will ‘hard incompatibilism’. Naming it ‘hard determinism’ would be inaccurate, since [he’s] not committed to determinism, so a new term is needed.’* He also informs us in a footnote that the ‘term ‘hard determinism’ originates in William James (1884).*

In closing, Pereboom lists some prominent free will sceptics that I share here:

  • Baruch Spinoza (1677/1985)
  • Paul d’Holbach (1770);
  • Joseph Priestley (1788/1965)
  • John Hospers (1950, 1958)
  • Paul Edwards (1958)
  • Galen Strawson (1986)
  • Bruce Waller (1990, 2011)
  • Derk Pereboom (1995, 2001, 2007)
  • Daniel Wegner (2002);
  • Shaun Nichols (2007)
  • Stephen Morris (2009)
  • Neil Levy (2011)
  • Thomas Nadelhoffer (2011)
  • Tamler Sommers (2012)
  • Gregg Caruso (2012)
  • Benjamin Vilhauer (2012)

I would add Daniel Dennett and perhaps Sam Harris to this list.

* Pereboom, Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, 2014