I finally decided to read Peter Strawson’s essay, Freedom and Resentment, as it seems to be a somewhat seminal work. As the essay is part of a larger collection, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, I also read Strawson’s autobiography, which is interesting. I especially enjoyed the part where he had published a piece only to discover that it dovetailed with some of Frege’s work and was cast as the Frege-Strawson view despite him never having read Frege.
Although on a lesser scale, I feel this captures some of my circumstances where I feel I have some original thought only to discover that someone’s already been there, in some cases before I was even born—or before my grandparents for that matter. There is just so much to read and time is a limited resource. In any case. Moving on.
He begins with these two sentences:
Some philosophers say they do not know what the thesis of determinism is. Others say, or imply, that they do know what it is.
Strawson employs the terminology of optimism and pessimism. These are in consideration of the notion of free will. Each claims that as far as we know, determinism cannot be shown to be false. But optimists believe that we can assume we have an adequate basis for moral practices whilst pessimists believe that we cannot make this assumption, so we must find some other basis; this means that the pessimists are forced to concede that although determinism cannot be proven to be false, it must nonetheless be false.
Some pessimists “hold that if the thesis [of determinism] is true, then the concepts of moral obligation and responsibility really have no application, and the practices of punishing and blaming, of expressing moral condemnation and approval, are really unjustified.”
Some optimists “hold that these concepts and practices in no way lose their raison d’être if the thesis of determinism is true.”
A genuine moral sceptic may hold that “the notions of moral guilt, of blame, of moral responsibility are inherently confused and that we can see this to be so if we consider the consequences either of the truth of determinism or of its falsity.”
Like Frege to Strawson, I now find myself adopting his line of argumentation—that people presume people to be competent agents by default unless exempted as non compos mentis and such. If one or more of these mitigating factors is not present, then one may be considered to be a morally responsible agent. (In my mind, this creates many false positives in the resultant sample, but let’s continue.)
Then he establishes the groundwork for moral obligation and responsibility to arrive here:
Strawson contrasts optimistic with pessimistic with a smattering of sceptics.
If I am asked which of these parties I belong to, I must say it is the first of all, the party of those who do not know what the thesis of determinism is.
But this does not stop me…
Desert is his next topic. What does the threshold of the agent to have to deserve “blame or moral condemnation”?
Effectively, Strawson separates determinists and libertarians (philosophical, not the capital-L political flavour).
He distinguishes reasons from rationalisation, with the former having more weight and the second being akin to excuses. Here, he tries to tease out notions of positive and negative freedoms on a concept defined negatively, i.e., the absence of some deficiency. He also calls out supporters for not only having an insufficient basis but “not even the right sort of basis”.
Strawson makes a point to delineate desert as following from a positive act rather than some omission, allowing for ignorance to serve as an escape clause. Being an older publication, he points out the by-now obvious contradiction between freedom and determinism, but he continues to clarify the waffling between various definitions of freedom, hiding behind the ambiguous meaning, whether intentioned or not.
Soon enough, he notes a challenge. Humans have a cognitive bias wherein they have a difficult time maintaining an objective attitude toward people who we interact with. Instead, we engage in participant reactive attitudes. This is to say that we make judgments we would not make on a non-reactive object. If we bump into a chair (object), we don’t activate the same mental protocols as if we bump into a person (participant reactive). In the latter case, our blame-resentment mechanism is activated. This may result in feelings of ‘resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger‘ or some sort of reciprocated love in another instance. In the end, he supposed that we blame people because we have reactive attitudes toward them.
Ultimately, irrespective of whether determinism is true or not, we cannot seem to control our personal reactive urges, so we need to deal with it.
To be honest, I don’t feel I got a lot out of this essay. Perhaps it just didn’t age well or others have already incorporated this into their work, so the logic may be sound, but it doesn’t feel particularly profound. I can tick off the ‘read this’ box and move on.
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 feel this article runs the reader down a rabbit hole, but as it already contains several points of view, I’ll uncharacteristically restrain commentary for now. Perhaps I’ll return to it later.
There are a lot of valid points in this article, but it misframes (perhaps unintentionally) and misses points just out of frame. As you read this, keep in mind that even if you accept the entire position, it does not invalidate the causa sui argument. This is the elephant in the room—hiding over there behind the ficus.
Gregg Caruso is interested in the notion of Agency from the perspective of justice, desert, and sentencing. This is applied philosophy.
My main argument against the possibility of free will is Nietzsche-Strawson’s causa sui argument, which I’ve touched on a few times by now, but I haven’t yet fully articulated my position. I’ll get to that another day. I’d also like to create another video, as I would like to do for this as I explore in more detail.
Ostensibly, this is a compatibilist view that leaves a modicum of free will, even with causa sui in place. I hope this illustration will be helpful.
In the centre of the illustration is you, the self of some arbitrary person who shall act as our subject. Let’s assume a couple of basic premises:
We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
Causa sui is in full force and effect: one cannot cause any aspect of one’s self.
I include the term relaxed in the first premise, so I don’t have to deal with a fully deterministic universe governed entirely by the notion captured by Schrödinger’s equation. The second premise is in place to serve as a limitation: even if consciousness is an emergent property, its emergence doesn’t grant some insuperable metaphysical powers. One cannot reach outside of one’s self.
The scenario plays out as follows. You have been apprehended for violating some statute. Let’s say that you’ve taken an item from a retail store. As you are leaving the store, the police stop you. When asked if you took the item, you answer in the affirmative. This is a very efficient municipality, so you are taken immediately to a magistrate to make a plea.
In this scenario, Caruso is your attorney at law. His argument is that, given causa sui, you cannot be responsible for who you are. We’ve been here before. Since you can’t be responsible for who you are, any sentence to punish you would be unethical, as you’ve done nothing to deserve it. This is the notion of desert in the realm of retributive justice.
The judge buys this argument, but s/he counters with three possible courses of action. You may not be responsible for who you are, but we are a community of laws. You are a victim of your circumstances, so we cannot look backwards. For whatever reason—and through no fault of your own, by definition—, you were broken relative to complying with community norms.
Firstly, we may wish to make an example of you, to signal the community that we will incarcerate people who break the laws. This is more a public service purpose than a punishment.
Secondly, if you had contracted a communicable disease—we’re looking at you Covid—, you can be quarantined under the consideration of the common good. Framed this way, it is not a punishment, we just don’t want it to happen again.
Lastly, we may also be justified on the grounds of rehabilitation. I highlight the ‘re‘ in rehabilitation because some people may not have been ‘habilitated’ in the first place. Perhaps think of them as feral. In any case, a computer programming analogy might make sense here.
So what’s this all about? Remember, causa sui says that you cannot be held responsible for creating yourself. The claim is that you are a product of your nature and nurture. Genetically speaking, perhaps there was some reason that you could not incorporate inputs into factors that allowed you to appropriately interpret this law—or any law, more generally. Or maybe, you were never exposed to this law or category of law before.
In the preventative vein, we could be signalling, ‘We caught You taking an item from a shop without paying. Now you know this, and we may make an example of you since you are caught as well’.
Quarantine may be a bit of a stretch in this scenario, so feel free to substitute a more serious offence if it helps you to remember this. Perhaps You killed someone. Even without punishment, we may want to get You off the streets before another killing is perpetrated. I’ll come back to this one.
Rehabilitation makes sense even if one is not responsible for one’s self. Presuming that you are a product of programming—family, culture, peers, and so on—, perhaps you just need to be rewired. Perhaps a particular subroutine was not implemented or activated correctly. This rationality could be used as a non-punitive justification.
The public prevention case may be why offenders were pilloried in by-gone days. Display in a public square may inform some who may have missed the lesson the first time around, hence dissuading taking similar actions. But unless this ‘public service message’ reached enough people, it would probably not be the best rationale.
Quarantine may sound OK on the surface, but it’s actually rather specious. Firstly, that You knicked a trinket. What exactly is the risk of contagion? Petty theft is not known to be particularly communicable. Secondly, just because you’ve done something once is little measure of whether you’ll do it again. In fact, if this were true, then one might have assumed that you could never have committed the offence because of your history.
Rehabilitation may likely be the best option among these. If you missed that particular lesson or had forgotten or diminished the calculus, remediation may do just the trick. However, if your ‘operating system’ is not up to snuff, it’s not a matter of inputs. It’s a matter of processing capability.
Psychological intervention is in its infancy, so the probability of remediating this is low, if not a crap shoot. And not all such processes can be remediated. This could lead one to fall back on the quarantine option, but who is the competent assessor in this case?
It’s easy enough to assess if You is Hannibal Lecter or tells you straight out that s/he intends to repeat the offence. Some cognitive deficiencies are simple enough to recognise. But what about the grey areas—all of that space in between?
And who is making sure that the judges are not being punitive simply because they haven’t yet eaten lunch?
Bringing this to a close, if we have no free will, it makes no sense to punish. Sadly, most justice systems promote retributive justice and punishment in sentencing. I’ll spare you my diatribe on how I believe most people attracted to jurisprudence, law, and law enforcement have been conditioned. And whilst Caruso feels justified in foreword action, I am more sceptical. This said, I’ll take what I can get.
This post is pretty much a stream of consciousness. I hope to give it better treatment in a future video.
Physicist, Sean Carroll, gives Robert Lawrence Kuhn his take on free will. I was notified about this when it was posted, and given the topical subject matter, I took the 8-odd minutes to listen to it straight away.
I wish I had been there to pose a follow-up question because, although he provided a nice answer, I feel there was more meat on the table.
Like me, Sean is a Determinist who feels that the question of determinism versus indeterminism is beside the point, so we’ve got that in common. Where I feel we may diverge is that I am an incompatibilist and Sean is a compatibilist. I could be interpreting his position wrong, which is what the follow-up question would be.
I say that Sean is a compatibilist because he puts forth the standard emergence argument, but that’s where my confusion starts. Just to set up my position for those who don’t prefer to watch the short clip, as a physicist, Sean believes that the laws of physics, Schrödinger’s equation in particular.
We have an absolutely good equation that tells us what’s going to happen there’s no room for anything that is changing the predictions of Schrödinger’s equation.
— Sean Carroll
This equation articulates everything that will occur in the future and fully accounts for quantum theory. Some have argued that quantum theory tosses a spanner into the works of Determinism and leaves us in an Indeterministic universe, but Sean explains that this is not the case. Any so-called probability or indeterminacy is captured by this equation. There is no explanatory power of anything outside of this equation—no souls, no spirits, and no hocus pocus. So far, so good.
But Sean doesn’t stop talking. He then sets up an analogy in the domain of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics and the ‘fundamental theory of atoms and molecules bumping into each other and [the] emergent theory of temperature and pressure and viscosity‘. I’ve explained emergence in terms of adding two hydrogen and one oxygen atom to create water, which is an emergent molecule with emergent properties of wetness.
My position is that one can view the atomic collection of matter at a moment as an emergent property and give it a name to facilitate conversation. In this case, the label we are applying is free will. But there is a difference between labelling this collection “free will” as having an analogous function to what we mean by free will. That’s a logical leap I am not ready to take. Others have equated this same emergence to producing consciousness, which is of course a precursor to free will in any case.
Perhaps the argument would be that since one now has emergent consciousness—I am not saying that I accept this argument—that one can now accept free will, agency, and responsibility. I don’t believe that there is anything more than rhetoric to prove or disprove this point. As Sean says, this is not an illusion, per se, but it is a construction. I just think that Sean gives it more weight than I am willing to.
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?
Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?
Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of controlfrom the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.
In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances.
So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.
I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.
I’ve spend some hours cobbling together another video that I labelled Free Will Scepticism: Would-Be Agency & Luck. I’ve embedded it here. The script is below.
Human agency does not exist. Free will is an illusion. Like the appearance that the sun rises in the east and sets and the west, we only appear to have free will.
There are some nuances and varying degrees of this belief, but if one believes in the scientific notion of cause and effect, that every effect is the result of a prior cause of causes, one inevitably ends up in this camp.
Without going into details because the focus of this segment is on luck, I’d still like to set the stage for the uninitiated.
Regarding the universe, we recognise a relationship between cause and effect. If we rewind to follow this logic back to the beginning of time and started again, we’d end up in exactly the same place. This is known as deterministic. What happens next is determined by what happened before.
And this is not just a scientific view. Those who believe that God caused the universe can arrive at this same place.
Owing to advancements in scientific thought, most philosophers today do not believe that the world is deterministic, per se. Given theories of quantum mechanics and probabilistic outcomes, they believe in so-called natural physical laws, but probability is also part of this model.
One may strike a billiard ball with a cue stick to cause it to strike another ball, knocking it into a pocket. In our knowledge of the universe, this is unsurprising. If one set this up mechanically, leaving no room for variation, we could run this scenario over and over again forever, and the ball would go into the pocket every time. The outcome is established by the laws of physics.
Actually, this is just another illusion. The laws of physics cause nothing. They are just a way of describing how things unfold in our universe. But just like saying that the sun rises in the east, we can employ idiomatic language and people know what we mean.
This was an illustration of determinism. Indeterminism accepts these same laws, but it adds an element of probability. In our mechanised billiards example, perhaps a ball is randomly rolled across the table in such a way that it might interfere with the path of the balls.
If the random ball does not interfere with the path, its presence is irrelevant. If it does interfere, there are a few different outcomes.
One, it knocks a ball off course, so the final ball does not go into the pocket.
Two, its path is such that although it collides with a ball, this event does not interfere with the final ball ending up in the pocket, so a person fixated on the pocket might not notice anything more than a slight delay in the occurrence of the event.
The second scenario depicts indeterminism.
In both scenarios, the ball expected to go into the pocket is the would-be agent. As illustrated, the ball itself has no agency. None of them does. Its fate, to borrow a term steeped in metaphysics, is entirely subject to the actions before it. And then there’s chance, so let’s continue.
Humans are ostensibly automatons, subject to their genetic and environmental programming with no degree of free will. Let’s say that in a given context each person can be described by a certain wave function. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just pretend that it can be represented by a sine wave. As with any waveform, we can illustrate it by plotting it on a 2-dimensional plane, having amplitude on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis. Let’s consider this to be analogous to a person’s biorhythm, and let’s further consider that this represents the would-be agent’s mood or propensity to behave a certain way.
Practically, there might be more functions, so let’s just say that this is the average of all of these other functions—perhaps the other functions being how much rest was had the night before, when and what the last meal was, traffic encountered on the way to work, and any number of other personal considerations.
For any stable wave, we can plot the period from peak to peak or trough to trough. Let’s use trough to trough to represent a period of a day but from 2:30 am to 2:30 am rather than from midnight to midnight. This is one complete cycle. The offset is just to more easily facilitate the scenario.
Given this frame, we’ll put noon in the centre between the midnights as expected.
For the purposes of illustration, we’ll draw a horizontal line to represent a threshold depicting a change in disposition. We’ll use this later.
Finally, let’s show time increments by hour, so we now see 24 hours in a day. And we can see that at noon the wave peak rises above the threshold and falls below the threshold again at 5 pm.
Let’s presume that this wave function represents that of a criminal trial judge. There is support for this notion as published in Daniel Kahneman’s 2021 book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, wherein he notes that trial judges are almost as predictable as a watch, that their sentences are more correlated with time of day and the aforementioned factors than anything related to law—save for the laws of time, I suppose.
Remembering that—like all people—this judge is an automaton. Let’s build some character—rather characteristics. Judge Judy believes that people are fundamentally bad and not to be trusted. She believes that they have free will and are accountable for their actions, though she does also allow for extenuating circumstances when considering sentencing, the usual suspects—bad childhood, chemical dependency, and whatnot. People who believe more strongly in free will are more likely to believe in harsher punishment. Judy is no exception.
Using this function as a guide, above the threshold represents her propensity for leniency. She tends to take lunch regularly before noon and is more lenient for a period after lunch. Data show that this effect is closer to a couple of hours after the midday meal, but we are simplifying.
Zooming in, let’s just consider a single day in the life of another would-be agent who as it happens will be interacting with our Judge Judy. I’ll take this opportunity to introduce the work of Neil Levy.
Neil is Head of Neuroethics at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes and Director of Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.
He is the author of Hard Luck, five previous books, and many articles, on a wide range of topics including applied ethics, free will and moral responsibility, philosophical psychology, and philosophy of mind.
Levy’s book promotes the concept that even if we allow for human agency, much of this supposed agency is undermined by luck. This will not only become evident in the scenario we are working through, but as a human, you may come upon a decision-point, where probability and luck come into play. You have no control over what ideas pop into your head—or don’t—and in what order. The choice you ultimately make is limited to what these ideas are and how they do or don’t manifest. Without going too far astray, perhaps you’ve constructed a false dichotomy.
Perhaps you are confronted by a stranger in a dark alley. You observe that it’s a dead end. The stranger, asking for money, approaches you in a manner you interpret as menacing. As he reaches into his coat, you pull out your concealed weapon and fatally shoot him.
He was unarmed. No longer in panic, you realise that you are not in a dead-end alley.
When the police arrive, they inform you that the person you killed is known` by law enforcement and social services, who have been keeping an eye on him because he had limited cognitive capacity and resided in a group home. Not only was he not armed, but the detective on the scene noted that what he was reaching for were pens with inspirational inscriptions that he routinely sold to earn money.
Whilst you may not have been able to determine that he was otherwise harmless, it was your ‘luck’—bad luck—that you didn’t happen to see that you were never cornered in the first place.
Nevertheless, you are arrested.
In another scenario, perhaps there are two judges. Judge Judy and Justice Joe. As it happens, Justice Joe has a cycle reverse to Judy. Where Judy’s mood is better after lunch, Joe is fasting, and his mood gets worse. This means that your fate now is not only tied to the time of day but it’s also linked to the luck of which judge will hand down your sentence.
If you are a strict determinist, then the “universe” has already determined which judge will sentence you.
If you are an indeterminist, then the universe will flip a coin. And the probability of a case running long or short might determine the time of day.
In the end, as are you, the judges are slaves to their programming, and any alteration of inputs will just be processed through whatever they’ve become until that point. They have no more free will than you do. The die has already been cast.
Do you believe you have free will? If so, why. Are you a determinist or an indeterminist? Or are you a compatibilist who believes that free will and determinism can coexist in the same universe?
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.
Harvard’s Bob Doyle submits that people have free will in an indeterministic universe (read: agency) because if in the face of some random event an agent can make a choice, then s/he is responsible for that choice. I believe he is mischaracterising or misinterpreting the situation. I’ve composited an illustration to show where he and I interpret the random event differently. I’ve linked and cued the video to where he makes the statement I am reacting to.
The illustration depicts three event chains. My interpretation of Bob’s case is at the top followed by that of a Deterministic universe, followed by that of an indeterministic universe. At the bottom of the illustration is an index running from t-2 to t2, representing time, where t0 represents now, a decision point.
Let’s set the table with the simplest narrative—Determinism. Here, every event that occurs was known since the beginning of time. Every state is the result of past events in a causal chain. Nothing can happen that isn’t caused by a prior event. This is the motion picture we just haven’t seen yet. But anyone who has already seen it can spoil the ending because it’s already known without a doubt.
Regarding the illustration, event t-2 causes t-1 that causes t0 all the way to t2 and beyond.
Bob Doyle, an Interpretation
Although Bob’s case is an interpretation of Indeterminism, let’s consider his position first. Then I’ll suggest where he’s gone astray.
As with the other cases, Bob’s transition from t-2 to t-1 is Deterministic and uncontested. The difference starts where t-1 transitions to t0. In Bob’s world, a random or perhaps a probabilistic event occurs given the agent to make a choice not having been previously determined. Referring to the illustration, because of this event, the agent chooses yes and embarks on the top chosen path, even if the subsequent path is again determined. Bob argues that at t0, the agent has free will, or if we focus our language, is responsible for the decision. By definition, this means that whatever path might be embarked had our agent chosen the lower path will never be known. And that has made all the difference.
Herein lies the rub. As with the prior two event chains, we arrive at t0, as with Bob’s scenario, we encounter a probabilistic (random, stochastic, aleatory, indeterministic) event. It does not follow that this event confers agential responsibility.
For example—not a moral consideration—, the random event involves the outcome of a match by their favourite sports team—or perhaps s/he’s won at Lotto—, our agent had no say in the outcome of the event. From the agent’s perspective—considering the illustration—s/he remains on a path. S/he can wish s/he rooted for the other team or had chosen a different number or ticket, but she had no choice.
To anticipate Bob’s response, perhaps she had won and now chooses to quit her job or take holiday. This should have been predictable knowing our agent’s disposition, character, and propensities. At no point did the agent actually possess even a modicum of agency.
Freedom & Creativity
I don’t know much about Bob or his work, but earlier in the video clip he discusses freedom and creativity. My sense is that he interprets creativity as a sort of emergent property that manifests at the moment. I fundamentally disagree with this assertion. The notion reminds me of Hume’s position that unicorns are simply the mental merger of horses and horns. This is not creation so much as a remix.
Later in the video, Bob clarifies that if something randomly pops into our heads and we make a different decision because of it, this is free will. My counterargument is that he is misusing the term random. An unknown origin does not necessarily mean randomly manifest.