Determinism and Indeterminism

Without worrying about free will, here’s a quick look at determinism and indeterminism.


Determinism effectively says that whatever happens in a causal chain results from what has happened before. If we could turn back time, the events would unfold identically.

In a deterministic universe, borrowing from Peter van Inwagen’s example, if Sally has to choose between Julliard and Harvard, if she ‘chooses’ Harvard, the first time, and subsequent instance would see her making the same choice.


Indeterminism effectively says, that whatever happens in a causal chain results from what has happened before. However, random events could alter the outcome. If we could turn back time, although events could unfold identically, they don’t have to.

In an indeterministic universe, borrowing again from Peter van Inwagen’s example, if Sally has to choose between Julliard and Harvard, if she ‘chooses’ Harvard, the first time, a subsequent instance might see her choosing Harvard again, but she might also choose Julliard. Since we have not entered free will into the arena, her choice was indeterminate but based on something entirely outside of her control. At some point, RNG entered the picture and tossed a 1 instead of a 0 thereby sealing her fate, as it were.

Again, absent the notion of free will, perhaps Sally was particularly inspired by a music teacher or a musician. Perhaps she just watched the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial and was compelled to fight for justice. Perhaps she was hungry or full. Perhaps she was stuck in traffic. Perhaps she was deciding during shark week.

Groundhog Day and Butterfly Effect

Another popular trope is that if we could rewind time, we could either effect change in the rerun through learning or just altering the past. We’ve seen this played out in movies like Groundhog Day, Butterfly Effect, the Back to the Future series, and so on. Time travel stories present several thought experiments that clearly play on the concept that we do have power over our environment. We’ll save this narrative for another day.

Peter van Inwagen – Big Questions in Free Will

Peter van Inwagen is a personality I’ve had on my radar, but I haven’t spent any time with him because he is a referenced influence of Robert Kane or Derk Pereboom, who hold positions I disagree with.

Video: Peter van Inwagen – Big Questions in Free Will

Still, I was interested, so I thought watching a short 13-minute video interview might introduce me to him. I’ve enjoyed other Closer to the Truth content, so I gave it a go. I feel that Peter sets up the problem perfectly. No faults whatsoever. As I see it, the same problem and solution proposal arises that Galen Strawson adopts, yet this is where I disagree with them both.

As noam chomsky has speculated maybe our minds are just put together in the wrong way to find this fault we got a certain set of cognitive modules tossed up to us in our evolutionary history maybe we got the wrong ones for thinking about this problem

— Peter van Inwagen


Unless I decide to unpack the rest, I’ll cut to the chase. The argument is as follows:

  1. Humans are somehow hardwired to blame. (I do not know if this is universally true, but let’s accept this premise as being true.)
  2. Without the notion of free will (or at least human agency), we cannot assign blame.
  3. Therefore, in order to assign blame, free will has to be true.

I don’t disagree with this syllogism. However, in ‘free will has to be true’ , there are ostensibly two possibilities.

  1. Free will exists as a fact in nature—a priori
  2. Free will is a construction—a posteriori

Of course, the general consensus for proponents of free will is that it exists a priori. My contention is that this is not the case. Free will is an a posteriori construction.

Inwagen is falling into a heuristic trap: It feels like it’s true, so it’s obviously true. Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman, he and others are relying on System I and failing to trigger System II, where System II is required. Moreover, I take this position because I don’t think System II has what it needs to accurately analyse and assess the situation holistically. We can’t get outside of the system, so we make up a story that presumably serves our purposes.

I am not one who believes ‘the universe is a simulation’, but I do believe it serves as an apt metaphor. We are player characters in the game and we can’t see outside of it.

I like to sum it all up with the expression, the future can be different, just not because of you.

Flavours of Free Will and Compatibilism

Reading Four Views on Free Will. In the introduction are some guiding definitions as well as this chart to help one to understand various views (row-wise) based on some questions (column-wise).

According to this chart, I’m a hard incompatibilist, As it reads,

  1. I don’t subscribe to notions of free will or moral responsibility.
  2. Free will and determinism cannot coexist in the same domain. (And the domain is the universe.)
  3. Moral responsibility cannot be assigned in a deterministic environment.
  4. Humans have no free will. (And neither can anything else.)

I’ve only read Robert Kane’s chapter so far. He’s a defender of Libertarianism.

John Martin Fischer is next. He’s known as a semi-compatibilist. We’ll find out what that means.

This is the end of a very short post, but I felt that the chart would be helpful for some.

Human Agency is an Illusion

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.

free will is the ability to make a choice
and have had the ability to have chosen otherwise

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

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

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.

Arthur Schopenhauer

And as Galen Strawson puts it,

  1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
  2. So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
  3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
  4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.

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.

Subjectification of Foucault

My love affair with Foucault goes way back. Joseph Campbell is said to have spent five years (1929–1934) living in a shack, engaged in intensive and rigorous independent study. In my dreams, I’d spend five years with Foucault, Galen Strawson, and David Guignion.

Michel Foucault is likely the most well-known of these three, and I’ve written a few Galen Strawson-related posts lately, but who the hell is David Guignion? I’ll tell you. David is a PhD philosophy student studying conspiracy theories if his bio is up to date and otherwise relevant. I’ve shared some of his content and insights over the years.

The reason I love David is that he introduces me to contemporary philosophers I had not been aware of as well as material or perspectives on classical philosophers to broaden my horizons. I think it’s safe to say that David and I are both Foucault fanboys. Hell, I don’t even have a tee shirt with Foucault’s likeness, so he’s even ahead of me in that game.

So, where’s this all leading, you ask. And I’m glad you did. A couple of days ago David posted a clip on YouTube called Michel Foucault’s “The Subject and Power”. I was drawn to the mention of Foucault, but I decided not to visit. I get so many distractions on my anti-agency endeavour—and that’s not even accounting for the sheer quantity of research—, and I didn’t need yet another. But the synchronicity was determined.

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I decided that I’d just let the video play as I fell into slumber. Spoiler Alert: That never happened. Topic after topic caught my ear, and it took all of my will to not get out of bed and start reading and writing. But it was almost 4 am, so that worked in favour of remaining supine—though alternately prostrate.

Kumi Yamashita, Building Blocks (2014)

My thesis is that the free will versus determinism or indeterminism debate is not inherently critical to the agency versus structure debate. My position is that agency has little breathing room and no material degrees of freedom to matter. Foucault’s subjectification or subjectivation makes the same argument. In effect, this is an argument about structure over agency. It’s about conscious and unconscious forces to conform. Full disclosure, I identify most as an indeterminist, but in the end, I don’t think it much matters. I disclose this being it may provide a clue as to how I ended up here—of my own free will, it goes without saying.

I’m not going to summarise David’s summary because you can just watch his clip for yourself. But the gist of it is that we are all subjectivised or moulded. Foucault tries to convince us that this is the crux of his decades of teaching, but to me, it still comes down to power—to the pressure that creates these diamonds. Diamonds have no free will; they just become diamonds. And so it goes for humans cum subjects.

Not to come across like Rousseau, but I am still interested in understanding what happens to those outside of this sphere of influence.

Cover Image Credit

Kumi Yamashita

H200, W300, D10 cm
Carved wood, single light source, shadow
Permanent Collection Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo, Japan

Evolution of Free Will

The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.

As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.

Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer

Voltaire, Épître à l’Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs (1769)

By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.

In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.

The Appointment in Samarra*

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

I was astonished to see him in Bagdad,
for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.


I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.

A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted

Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a

This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.

Final Note

Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.

But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.

So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.

* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)

Raising Kane

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.

Garden of Forking Paths

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:

  1. There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
  2. There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature.
  3. There is nothing we can now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
  4. If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 responsibleonly 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
  • Action
  • Reaction

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. [0]

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 [0] 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 [0]. 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 [0].

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.’

Just no.

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.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

A British Philosopher Looks for a Way to Redefine Free Will

Julian Baggini’s proposed new approach assumes the existence of the very qualities that only a traditional view of the mind offers

I haven’t read this book and am not familiar with Julian, but I’ll share it here as a reminder. From this article, it feels like he is tilting the mechanical hard deterministic windmill. Nothing more to add at the moment.

Cows Are Suey*

As I research the agency/free will quandary, I am finding a lot of common minds, as it were. On the free will versus determinism spectrum, I can’t say without reservation that I accept determinism or indeterminism, for that matter, but I can say that free will is weak tea. Causa Sui comes into play, but I’ll get to that.

As an aside, similar to the theism versus atheism debate, keep in mind that this debate hinges on free will taking the privileged position occupied by theism. When discussing compatibility versus incompatibilism, it’s whether determinism is compatible or incompatible with free will. I feel that the privilege of free will in this debate is telling insomuch as it reveals a bias on preferred perspective.

If you’ve been reading, I like what Derk Pereboom has to say, but I feel we have a bit of a gap in our accord. But I’m very partial to Galen Strawson’s line of argumentation that doesn’t rely on determinism to declare the free will argument pointless. I believe that there is space to fill in some gaps in his position regarding social responsibility, and maybe there are no gaps; I just am not yet familiar enough with his position. From a strictly deterministic position, I find Robert Sapolsky’s position appealing, but it still ends up being a pissing match. To be fair, I think any position will be a pissing match. I’ll elaborate on this next before I touch on causa sui.

Losing My Religion

In my book, free will is an anachronistic vestige of religion. Not to go too far down a Foucauldian path, religion is a power play. As religion constructs gods, it also constructs notions of free will. Power structures like to leverage these concepts for their own ends.

Interestingly, religion first gave us determinism—at least the Abrahamic monotheistic varieties—, but it needed to construct free will or it would have undermined its ability to cast blame and guilt. When science matured, it said, ‘Hey, hold on there. There’s no room for gods in physics. Everything has a cause and was determined at the start. Your intuition was right at the start. Free will is bollocks.’

Causa Sui

Finally. Causa Sui is the Latin name for a self-caused cause, one that is not the result of prior events. Here is where I really like Galen Strawson’s account. His argument is premised on 4 factors, the first of which is what you do flows from the way you are.

What you do flows from the way you are.

Galen Strawson

In essence, you’ve somehow got to get to be responsible for being the way you are, but you can’t you can’t get back behind yourself in such a way as to be responsible for the kind of person you are. You’ve got to somehow have chosen it, but you can’t choose it unless you already exist as a creature who has preferences.

No Causa Sui

You’d somehow have to get to be the cause of yourself to take fundamental ultimate responsibility for yourself and therefore for your actions that flow from the way you are and therefore free will—indeed more responsibility and free will, and therefore we do not have free will.

In the diagramme, we see you, and the influence of external forces, but at no point are you ever responsible for your own actions. Even if you did make a so-called conscious effort to do something else, it would still be the result of one of these other sources.

Perhaps an inapt example would be for a homosexual person to ‘decide‘ to be a heterosexual person. This is not to say just to act like a heterosexual person, but to actually be attracted to the opposite sex. It should be obvious that this can’t be done, but if you are having difficulty, imagine the mirror example where you are a heterosexual person and you ‘decide‘ to be attracted to people of your own sex. Of course, this is akin to deciding that you like cilantro when you don’t, deciding you like Justin Beiber when you don’t, or deciding that you don’t actually enjoy chateaubriand when you do. Even if you manage to act the opposite of your sexual orientation, it is still not you who is responsible for the apparent change. It’s a response to social forces and external conditioning. You are the way you are because of the way you are. You’ve had absolutely no say in the matter.

You are the way you are because of the way you are.

So what’s the big deal? you might still be asking yourself. If you’ve just done something morally or legally “wrong” —emphasised by big bold scare quotes, you need to be punished or at least blamed irrespective of how you became you, right? Let’s ignore that I am a moral non-cognitivist at the start and pretend that this moral indignation is otherwise meaningful.

Quarantine Justification Theory

Let’s say that someone has done something outside the bounds of social acceptance in some milieu. To make it even easier to consider, let’s imagine for a moment, instead, an autonomous robot that was designed to seek glass and smash it. This robot has no conscience and no free will. It is just a robot programmed to break windows.

This robot has been unleashed on our community. In one sense, some might blame the robot for breaking the windows, but we know that whoever programmed this robot is to blame. But we don’t know who programmed it. What we do know is that we want to stop the robot from breaking more windows.

So we track down the robot and we disable it—or perhaps it’s designed in such a way that it can’t be turned off. Even though the robot is not to blame, it is a menace and we’ve collectively decided to disarm it or quarantine it. We build a glassless room and sequester it away so it can do no more damage.

Some people find this scenario a reasonable justification to quarantine the actor, but I think that this has at least one problem, I’ll mention two considerations I have.

Not a Robot

So, let’s revisit quarantine justification theory with a human actor, and let’s presume no causa sui. As we can’t blame the robot actor, neither can we blame the person actor. As with the robot, the goal is not to punish but to quarantine.

Not to Blame

Now let’s add a dose of reality. This human is not on a window-breaking rampage. Instead, s/he vandalised the window of a shop for some reason; let’s say that s/he was short-changed and wanted to exact damage equal to the shorted change. A police officer witnesses the act and takes the perpetrator into custody. What should the judge do? Remember, the person did not create themself, but s/he did the act s/he was accused of.

The image below shows two scenarios. In scenario A, you are integrated with society; in scenario B, you are quarantined. The question is what is the justification for quarantining you.

Quarantine Justification Model

It’s difficult to argue that this person should be quarantined because this was a tit-for-tat response, not a rampage. It’s unlikely to happen again. One might try to argue that this person should be fined or, in line with quarantine, incarcerated to be made an example, thus acting as a scapegoat to serve as an external social pressure mechanism to disincentivise this retributive action. But this would ostensibly be punishing this person for something beyond their control.

We can even loosen the scenario to consider a person who has robbed a liquor store or kidnapped a child. These events are all too common, but there is nothing to suggest that a person will repeat this activity, so quarantine cum incarceration is hard to justify.

I can envision someone reading this thinking that we need to do something. We can’t let this person get away with it, but if you find yourself drifting in this direction, it’s your programming. You can’t help yourself. You don’t even have this degree of agency.

I haven’t given it enough thought, but it feels like this is similar to the dissonance when one grasps something intellectually, but instinctually or emotionally something just doesn’t sit right. Whilst you try to get outside of yourself, your programming doesn’t allow it.

* If you haven’t sussed it out quite yet, ‘cows are suey’ is how Google’s auto-generated transcript heard causa sui in an interview with Galen Strawson on this topic, and the rest is history.

Ultimate Responsibility

Robert Kane argues that ultimate responsibility (UR) should guide us in determining whether someone is responsible for their actions. He gives the example of a drunk driver who gets into an automobile accident. If the actor tries to skirt responsibility because s/he was intoxicated, hence incapacitated, then [1] we can still rewind to an action taken that caused this intoxicated state and then [2] choosing to drive—a causal relationship articulated by Aristotle. This seems fine, but it’s a specious defence.

According to Kane

According to Kane—noting an issue raised by some—, it doesn’t require an assessment that a person could have done otherwise. This condition has numerous implications for free will.

For example, it doesn’t require that we could have done otherwise for every act done of our own will. But it 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. Kane calls these self-forming actions (SFAs). According to Kane, [3] we act from a will that’s already formed, but [4] it’s our own free will by virtue of the fact that [5] we formed it by other choices or actions in the past—self-forming actions—, [6] for which we could have done otherwise.

Consider the drunk driver. If this were not the case, there’s nothing we could have ever done differently in our entire lifetimes to make ourselves different than we are—a consequence that’s incompatible with our being, at least to some degree, ultimately responsible for what we are. And that’s what I think free will requires.

Kane’s Challenge

I marked passages in brackets [n], to serve as a reference for my commentary here. Some of my responses may be repetitive, so I’ll try to make any redundancies recursive.

[1] Kane suggests that even if the person is incapacitated at the time of the accident—hence not responsible in the moment—, we can trace events back through time and pinpoint an event that caused the incapacitation. In fact, we can trace it back to the decision to imbibe in the first place. I have two objections here, but I’ll defer the second one to my next reaction.

Kane says we can rewind to some causal event. We are in agreement on this point, but I have a question: why stop there?

In engineering, there exists a concept called root cause analysis, and there is a concomitant heuristic called the 5 Whys. Essentially, using the DUI example as a discussion point, we can refer to the accident as event T0. Then we can trace back.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll ignore trivial or immaterial events such as s/he encountered a detour and so took an unfamiliar route or s/he fell asleep at the wheel, missing a green light, which caused a delay, which meant that she was in a place to happen to hit another vehicle—presuming that if s/he had been a minute ahead of her fateful schedule, there would have been no other vehicle to hit. This might be a logical line of inquiry, but let’s shelf it.

So, tracing back, at T-1, we find our actor already intoxicated and starting the car. At T-2, we find our actor drinking the last of multiple rounds of alcohol. We could trace back all the way back to, say, T-5, where our actor made the decision to take the first drink.

We may have difficulty pinning down where the impairment kicked in. Was it the drink at event T-2 or was it earlier, say, ay T-4, where all subsequent drinks were not assessed rationally? In any case, even if we stop at the last lucid state, T-5, then everything that follows can be said to be related to that event. But I have a problem.

[2] Firstly, if s/he was mentally incapacitated, how could s/he make a rational decision to drive or not? Secondly, even if we say that s/he became mentally incapacitated at event T-4, then the decision at that juncture was not rationally deliberated.

We could introduce a twist here, which is to assign culpability to the drink server. Some local statutes exploit this by making the barkeep culpable for serving a drink to an already intoxicated patron. Of course, this has the same issue noted above because we can’t say with any reliability whether the actor was intoxicated at T-2 or T-4. Let’s not get mired in this. This is not my biggest concern.

My key concern is in stopping there at T-5. Why not go back to why s/he even had the first drink? Why not go back to why she drinks in the first place? Why not keep going back. More on this ahead. Let’s continue.

[3] Kane says that the actor, the decider, already has a formed will. In this, he is introducing another concept—one of the self or the individual. Let’s continue, and I’ll get to that, too.

[4] Echoing the self, Kane doubles down and says that this self has a will, and the actor owns it. As such s/he is responsible for these willed actions, these caused actions. So, let’s dig in.

[5] Kane asserts that we formed this self by other choices or actions in the past that he calls self-forming actions. This is where in my mind this skein of logic unwinds.

Ignoring whether the self is anything but narrative convenience, why should one accept that the actor has any agency in this so-called self-forming? What proof do we have that this actor is just a victim of circumstances—from geworfen until event T0? Even without invoking determinism, I think it’s safe to assume that this actor is a consequence of, at least, hereditary and (monomorphic and polymorphic) genetic traits including temperament. Then we have structural influences, such as family, peers, institutions, and authority figures, societies and cultural norms.

It might be difficult to determine what percentage of the self are formed by this, but it would be disingenuous to defend this as self-forming rather than formed by some crucible.

[6] Kane’s final point is about whether one might have done otherwise. He downplays this point, and so shall I. If someone insists that this is important, I’ll address it at that time.


I left out some key points that I’ll likely return to in future. Essentially, Kane is a traditionalist who pines for virtue and character, two concepts I feel of figments intended to act as tools of power maintenance. I feel this will get us down a rabbit hole, and I am rabbitted out, so let’s end here.