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.

Enfin

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.

Cicada-caused

Citizen Kane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pereboom coveying Kane’s libertarian concept of freedom

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

Pereboom explaining indeterministic causation

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

Choices

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

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

Pereboom’s Critique

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

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

Derk Pereboom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pereboom (simplified), op. sit.

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

Pereboom (simplified), op. sit.

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

Quantum Physics

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

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

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

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

Hard Incompatibilism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Illusionism and the Illusion of Determinism

One reason I prefer to look at agency is to avoid the claims and counterclaims of proponents of free will and of determinism, each having factions causing the other side of clinging to an illusion. As I’ve noted previously, at present I am a self-described soft-determinist insomuch as I declare myself to be agnostic.

My hypothesis is that humans have little or negligible agency. Under hard determinism, this would collapse from nil to zero. In either case, it is criminal to presume to be able to assign moral responsibility to any person.

Illusionism

Determinists charge free will advocates of being fooled.

Illusionism is the position that free will does not exist and is merely an illusion.

Many ancient and modern thinkers have made this claim. They have usually been strong determinists, from Hobbes to Einstein.

Classical compatibilists, from Hobbes and Hume on, have held that free will exists but that it is compatible with determinism (actually many determinisms).

Since the discovery of irreducible quantum mechanical indeterminism, most scientists and some philosophers have come to understand that determinism is a dogmatic belief unsustainable from the evidence.

It is determinism that is the illusion.

Nevertheless, most philosophers remain compatibilists, even as the evidence of indeterminism has caused them to declare themselves agnostic on the truth of determinism or indeterminism.

Illusionism <https://www.informationphilosopher.com/articles/illusion_of_determinism/>

The Illusion of Determinism

Adequate determinism is an emergent property in a universe that was initially chaotic and which remains chaotic at atomic and molecular levels. Consequently all physical processes are statistical and all knowledge is only probabilistic. Strict determinism is an illusion, a consequence of idealization.

Statistical knowledge always contains errors that are normally distributed according to a universal law that ultimately derives from the discrete quantum nature of matter.

The existence of this universal distribution law of errors convinced many scientists and philosophers that the randomness of errors was not real, that strict deterministic laws would be found to explain all phenomena, including human beings.

To the extent that randomness is needed to break the causal chain of strict physical determinism, many philosophers continue to think that free will is the illusion.

The Illusion of Determinism <https://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/illusionism.html>

Peter F Strawson

Peter Strawson said he could make no sense of ideas like free will and determinism. In this regard he was one with those English-speaking philosophers who, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought such questions were pseudo-problems to be dissolved by careful attention to actual language use.

Strawson made a contribution to the free will versus determinism discussions by pointing out that whatever the deep metaphysical truth on these issues, people would not give up talking about and feeling moral responsibility, praise and blame, guilt and pride, crime and punishment, gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness.

Peter F Strawson

To be fair, I feel that Peter Strawson and I agree on the insufficiency of language to settle the matter of whether the universe offers free will or is deterministic, that questions such as this are pseudo-problems.

Buridan’s Ass

On my Agency adventure, I’ll be collecting and assembling thinking and discussion points.

Jean Buridan’s principle of Equipoise

Buridan’s ass is a fourteenth-century paradox to illustrate why reason or rationality has challenges. I’ve seen this illustrated with hay bails. In deference to Shrek’s donkey, I’m having waffles.

Buridan’s ass is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the donkey will always go to whichever is closer, it dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision between the hay and water. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.

The paradox is named after the 14th-century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirizes. Although the illustration is named after Buridan, philosophers have discussed the concept before him, notably Aristotle, who put forward the example of a man equally hungry and thirsty, and Al-Ghazali, who used a man faced with the choice of equally good dates.

A version of this situation appears as metastability in digital electronics, when a circuit must decide between two states based on an input that is in itself undefined (neither zero nor one). Metastability becomes a problem if the circuit spends more time than it should in this “undecided” state, which is usually set by the speed of the clock the system is using.

Wikipedia

On Agency and Structure

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Karl Marx – The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

DISCLAIMER: This page is an idea dumping ground acting as a scratchpad for me to coalesce ideas related to my agency endevour.

As I consider the relationship between agency and determinism, it will be necessary to define my terms. To this end, I’ll rely on historical citations and definitions. Marx’s quote echoes that of Schopenhauer

We may act as we will, but we cannot will as we will.

Arthur Schopenhauer – On The Freedom Of The Will (1839)

Ostensibly speaking Agency is a sense of freedom in concert with will and volition.

Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment. It is independent of the moral dimension, which is called moral agency.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(philosophy)

Agency may either be classified as unconscious, involuntary behavior, or purposeful, goal directed activity (intentional action). An agent typically has some sort of immediate awareness of their physical activity and the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing. In ‘goal directed action’ an agent implements a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(philosophy)

Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices. It is normally contrasted to natural forces, which are causes involving only unthinking deterministic processes. In this respect, agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency entails the claim that humans do in fact make decisions and enact them on the world. Howhumanscometomakedecisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Agency page is as good of a start as any other credible place.

In very general terms, an agent is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity. The philosophy of action provides us with a standard conception and a standard theory of action. The former construes action in terms of intentionality, the latter explains the intentionality of action in terms of causation by the agent’s mental states and events. From this, we obtain a standard conception and a standard theory of agency. There are alternative conceptions of agency, and it has been argued that the standard theory fails to capture agency (or distinctively human agency). Further, it seems that genuine agency can be exhibited by beings that are not capable of intentional action, and it has been argued that agency can and should be explained without reference to causally efficacious mental states and events.

Debates about the nature of agency have flourished over the past few decades in philosophy and in other areas of research (including psychology, cognitive neuroscience, social science, and anthropology). In philosophy, the nature of agency is an important issue in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, the debates on free will and moral responsibility, in ethics, meta-ethics, and in the debates on the nature of reasons and practical rationality. For the most part, this entry focuses on conceptual and metaphysical questions concerning the nature of agency. In the final sections, it provides an overview of empirically informed accounts of the sense of agency and of various empirical challenges to the commonsense assumption that our reasons and our conscious intentions make a real difference to how we act.

Schlosser, Markus, “Agency”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/agency/>.

Hume and Kant both believe that freedom is essential to morality. Moreover, both believe that a philosophical theory and vindication of human morality requires reconciling freedom with universal causal necessity (determinism). However, they offer different conceptions of freedom, different ways of reconciling it with necessity, and different ways of understanding why this reconciliation matters for morality. Scholars agree that Hume is a “compatibilist”, but there is no consensus on the correct label for Kant’s position.

Wilson, Eric Entrican and Lara Denis, “Kant and Hume on Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/kant-hume-morality/>.

Human agency

See also: Action (philosophy)

Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world. It is normally contrasted to natural forces, which are causes involving only unthinking deterministic processes. In this respect, agency is subtly distinct from the concept of libertarian  free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined, but is perfectly in accord with some compatibilist philosophical views. Of course many philosophers have sophisticated deterministic accounts, such as Stawson’s theory of reactive attitudes . Human agency – in its naive psychological interpretation – entails the claim that humans do in fact make decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another big issue.

The capacity of a human to act as an agent is personal to that human, though considerations of the outcomes flowing from particular acts of human agency for us and others can then be thought to invest a moral component into a given situation wherein an agent has acted, and thus to involve moral agency. If a situation is the consequence of human decision making, persons may be under a duty to apply value judgments to the consequences of their decisions, and held to be responsible for those decisions. Human agency entitles the observer to ask should this have occurred? in a way that would be nonsensical in circumstances lacking human decisions-makers, for example, the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy on Jupiter.

In philosophy

In certain philosophical traditions (particularly those established by Hegel and Marx), human agency is a collective, historical dynamic, rather than a function arising out of individual behavior. Hegel’s Geist and Marx’s universal class are idealist and materialist expressions of this idea of humans treated as social beings, organized to act in concert. Also look at the debate, philosophically derived in part from the works of Hume, between determinism and indeterminacy.

In sociology

See also: Structure and agency and Agency (sociology)

Structure and agency forms an enduring core debate in sociology. Essentially the same as in the Marxist conception, “agency” refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices, whereas “structure” refers to those factors (such as social class, but also religion, gender, ethnicity, subculture, etc.) that seem to limit or influence the opportunities that individuals have.

Basic Knowledge 101 Agency

a proposal titled “Should the Criminal Justice System Be Abolished?” I argued that the answer was yes, that neuroscience shows the system makes no sense and they should fund an initiative to accomplish that.

Behave (Sapolsky), Chapter 16: Biology, the Criminal Justice System, and (Oh, Why Not?) Free Will

Interestingly, Sapolsky’s reasons for asking if the criminal justice system should be abolished don’t directly consider human agency.


Theories of Agency (Uncerimoniously lifted from Swarthmore College)

Key concepts present within “agency”: the individual, action, will, intentionality, choice, freedom

Key concepts against which “agency” is commonly situated: structure, determinism, society, environment, inevitability

Philosophy

What is the individual, self or person? (e.g., what is the unit of ‘agency’?) What, in contrast, is not-agent (environment, structure, inanimate)?

Postmodernist and poststructuralist skepticism about the individual or “the human subject”.

How does the agent know about the difference between itself and the environment?

Cartesianism: the self is that which knows itself; existence is best understood by radical categorical divisions between mind-body, self-other, etcetera, for heuristic and ontological reasons.

  • What is an action?
  • Does the agent choose or will its action in the world?
  • Does agency exist even if the act changes nothing in the environment? Is there more agency if there is more change?
  • Does agency exist if the intentionality of the action and the change bear little or no resemblance to each other?

Social and Behavioral Science

Agency determines everything

Libertarianism and objectivism

Certain forms of Christian theology, both evangelical Protestantism and Deism (with the frequent proviso that God is the “uncaused cause” or prior determination of the individual struggle against sin)

Certain forms of 19th Century liberalism

Structure determines everything (macrostructures or microstructures)

  • Calvinist predetermination
  • Strong forms of structuralist anthropology, folklore and psychoanalysis (Levi-Strauss, Jung)
  • Strong forms of genetic determinism
  • Strong forms of developmental or evolutionary psychology (Skinner, Buss)

Functionalism

All practices and behaviors of agents are determined by logics which precede those practices, and which always make rational sense in objective terms outside the perception of human actors (which human actors may or may not be aware of) (Marvin Harris on human dietTalcott Parsons on human institutions)

Certain forms of teleological Marxism, Hegelianism and other 19th Century social thought.

Structure-Agency feedback loop

Can be strongly determinist or indeterminist, depending on how closed the loop is represented as being. Malthusian thought, for example, is a structure-agency feedback loop, but it is intensely determinist.

Social contract theory

Individuals consent in some initial pre-social state to a foundational understanding of their social rules and institutions; those rules have binding force on individuals and exist outside of their agency until such time as sufficient numbers of individuals choose to withdraw their understood consent to the legitimacy of social structures.

Can have a “negative spin”, as in Hobbes: social institutions as the only constraint which keeps individual agency from producing horrible suffering.

Anthony Giddens and structuration theory

Modernity not as “iron cage” (Weber) or “prelude to utopia” (Marx) but as a condition collectively chosen through the deliberate actions of many people; agency determines structure which determines the possibilities for the expression of agency and so on ad infinitum.

Neoclassical economic thought

Agents act out of self-interest, individually and differentially perceived and measured and achieved; the sum total of individual action is (or ought to be) a well-ordered political economy that maximizes the aggregate opportunities for self-interest even though the results for every individual will not be equally optimal (equal opportunity, non-equal results).

Historicist anti-functionalism and some forms of evolutionary theory

Practices, behaviors and institutions are ‘structure’, but explained largely by the fact of precedent and inertia, not by deeper ‘preset’ functionalism that precedes and trumps change over time; no teleological end to change. “One damn thing after another”.

The “bounded circle” of agency

Agency exists within tight constraints, but is free within those constraints. this is a common way ever since the Enlightenment to describe the agency of individuals: absolutely constrained beyond a certain boundary, absolutely free or devolving upon the individual within it. Sometimes this is only an axiomatic assumption governing social institutions and sometimes it is an ontological assertion about agency. (e.g., you could argue that modern American criminal law assumes absolute individual responsibility for actions once constraints of circumstance and environment are considered, but does not require an ontological assertion about the reality of agency).

Men make history, but they do not make it just as they please” —Karl Marx

Marx needs this in order to believe in the possibility of revolution, but it has long been debated among Marxists since Marx’s time whether the “humanist” Marx who seems to believe in a limited but critical role for will and agency in choosing a revolutionary moment or the “scientific” Marx who believes in the structural inevitability of revolution.

“Methodological individualism”

Structure exists, and has determinant force, but a conscious heuristic decision that what individuals choose to do, or perceive themselves as choosing, is interesting as an object of study–not the individual as a “case study” of a larger whole, but the individual as exceptional or particular.

Testudineous Agency

In chapter 71, Ultimate Responsibility, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, author and philosopher, Daniel Dennett presents a counterargument to the notion that an agent, a person, is not absolutely responsible for their actions. He questions some premises in the ‘the way you are’ line of argumentation, but I question some of his questions.

Here is a nice clear version of what some thinkers take to be the decisive argument. It is due in this form to the philosopher Galen Strawson (2010):
1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
2. So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 395). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Dennett continues.

The first premise is undeniable: “the way you are” is meant to include your total state at the time, however you got into it. Whatever state it is, your action flows from it non-miraculously.

Dennett and I are in agreement with Strawson. There is not much to see here. It’s akin to saying the now is the result of all past events until now. This is “the way you are”.

The second premise observes that you couldn’t be “ultimately” responsible for what you do unless you were “ultimately” responsible for getting yourself into that state—at least in some regards.

This second premise asserts that one cannot be responsible for any action that one had no part in performing. Two scenarios come immediately to mind.

First, you are not responsible for being born. As Heidegger notes, we are all thrown into this world. We have no say in when or where—what country or family—or what circumstances.

Second, if one is hypnotised or otherwise incapacitated, and then involved in a crime, one is merely a cog and not an agent, so not responsible in any material sense.

But according to step (3) this is impossible.

Whilst Dennett fixates on the absolute aspect of the assertion, I’d like to be more charitable and suggest that we still end up with a sorites paradox. Dennett will return to this one, and so shall I.

So step (4), the conclusion, does seem to follow logically. Several thinkers have found this argument decisive and important. But is it really?

As Dennett invalidates step (3), he insists that the conclusion is also invalid. He asserts that the notion of absolute responsibility is a red herring, and I argue that Dennett doesn’t get us much further, perhaps redirecting us with a pink herring.

I’ve created an image with tortoises to make my point. There are actually two points I wish to make. The first point is to determine where the responsibility is inherited. This point is meant to articulate that the world can not be strictly deterministic and yet one can still not have significant agency. The second point is that culpability is asserted as a need, and acceptance of this assertion is the problem.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-14.png
Testuditude

The image depicts an evolution of an agent, with time progressing from left to right. The tortoise on the right is a product of each of the recursive tortoises to its left. The image means to convey that each subsequent tortoise is a genetic and social and social product of each tortoise prior. Of course, this is obviously simplified, because tortoises require pairs, so feel free to imagine each precedent tortoise to represent a pair or feel free to add that level of diagrammatic complexity.

This is not meant to distinguish between nature and nurture. Instead, the claim is that one is a product of both of these. Moreover, as genetic, epigenetic, and mimetic influences are transmitted in family units, they also occur through social interaction and the environment, as represented by the orange and green tortoises.

…if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability?

The point here is that if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability? Each person is an emergent unit—autonomous, yes, and yet highly programmed.

If I programme a boobytrap to kill or maim any intruder, the boobytrap has no agency. I assert further, that the maker of that boobytrap has no more responsibility than the killing device.

The old hand grenade wired to a doorknob boobytrap trick

But who do we blame? you ask, and that’s precisely the problem. Asking questions doesn’t presume answers. This is a logical fallacy and cognitive bias. This heuristic leaves us with faulty jurisprudence systems. Humans seem hardwired, as it were, to blame. Humans need to believe in the notion of free will because they need to blame because they need to punish because vengeance is part of human nature to the extent there is human nature. There seems to be a propensity to frame everything as a causal relationship. Dennett calls this the Intentional stance. To borrow a from Dennett…

This instinctual response is the source in evolution of the invention of all the invisible elves, goblins, leprechauns, fairies, ogres, and gods that eventually evolve into God, the ultimate invisible intentional system.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 374). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Fire Trap in Home Alone

Sins of the Fathers (and Mothers)

Let’s wrap this up with a sorites paradox. As I’ve already said, I agree with Dennett that the absolute aspect is unnecessary and undesired. The question remains how much agency™ does a person have once we account for the other factors? Is it closer to 90 per cent or 10 per cent? Apart from this, what is the threshold for culpability? Legal systems already have arbitrary (if not capricious) thresholds for this, whether mental capacity or age, which basically distils back to the realm of capacity.

I have no basis to even venture a guess, but that’s never stopped me before. I’d argue that the agency is closer to zero than to one hundred per cent of the total, and I’d propose that 70 per cent feels like a reasonable threshold.

I could have sworn I’d posted a position on this after I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. Perhaps it’s never made it out of drafts.

In closing, I don’t think we need to settle the question of determinism versus free will to recognise that even without strict determinism, personal agency is still severely limited, and yet as our political systems presume a level of rationality that is not apparent, so do legal systems presume a level of agency not present.

Free Will?

As I wrote earlier, free will is a vestige of bygone days—an anachronism. Even though though I’ve got a very low opinion of psychology as a discipline, if we introduce behaviourism into the equation, we can see how little agency a person really has.

Mary’s parents have fed her porridge for breakfast her entire life. She loves porridge.

When Mary is away, she freely chooses porridge.

Even as she ages, she chooses porridge.

One day, she is dating someone who she knows prefers fruit to porridge, so Mary chooses fruit instead.

Is this free will? At first, Mary is conditioned to eat porridge, and she develops a preference for it. Given choice, she chooses porridge. But is this a choice? Yes, she can break the cycle and choose something else. Still is that her choiced, or an act of rebellion against her upbringing?

When dating, she chooses fruit—perhaps even going against her own preference, her preference to make a good impression taking priority.

If we rewind we can see that her parents fed her porridge because that’s what they chose.

Another more charged choice is religion. Most people with a religion share the same religion as their parents. In some cases, they choose a different religion or no religion, but these are minority cases. And some of these instances are to differentiate from their parents, to assert their individuality. But is this a choice, or is this pathology? How can you determine the difference?

Thisis not meant to serve as some exaustive treatment. I am merely jotting down thoughts as I continue to distract myself from higher-value outpout. 😉

Compatible with Compatibilism?

Full Disclosure: I consider myself to be a determinist. I looked for something like Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability to evaluate where one might be oriented on a scale of free will to determinism to fatalism whilst also considering compatibilism.

Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability

Let’s lay some groundwork by establishing some definitions from most constrained to least:

  • Fatalism : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them
  • Compatibilism : a doctrine that maintains that determinism is compatible with free will
  • Determinism : a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws
  • Freewill : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

It seems that freewill and fatalism are bookends with compatibilism attempting to moderate or synthesise freewill and deteminism. But it also seems that one’s selection may be contexual. Ultimately, this argument is fraught with semantic challenges insomuch as some underlying concepts are yet unresolved.

Crash Course Philosophy does provides a nice summary of the challenges in defending even compatibilist positions away from detemininism and even fatalism.

As this video notes, our choices may appear to be free, but it doesn’t take much effort to perform a 5-whys investigation to remove anything but homoeopathic amounts of agency.

Taking a short example, let’s look at the cases of the trial judges mentioned by Sapolsky (Behave) and Kahneman (Noise). Given all of the factors entering into sentences, prior offences, sex or gender of either the defendant or the judge, education, income, and so on, but far the largest factor in determining the length or severity of a sentence was the time between the sentencing and the judge’s last meal—effectively their blood glucose levels.

Some may argue that this is a short interval, but behaviourists would argue that a person now is a culmination of all of their experiences to date. That the decision of the so-called criminal to rob the liquor store (going for the stereotype here) was not the result of low blood sugar. This may be true, but there is still an unbroken chain of confluent events that brought them to that place.

From a culpabilty perspective, even absent true agency, the offender should still be incarcerated or whatever to prevent this behaviour from repeating. Of course, if you believe in rehabilitation, you are necessarily a behaviourist in soem shape or form: the idea is to effectively repattern experience impressions. The other problem is one of probability. That you did X once, are you lilkey to do it again? If not, then there is no further risk to society, as it were. Given the probability of recitivism—and some argue that mass incarceration increases the probability or attempting criminal actions post-release—, is this even an effective deterence? It’s time to get out of the rabbit hole.

From my position, it is impossible to reconcile experience and freewill. The best you can argue is that one is free in the moment—like some strange improv exercise, where you are shown a film that stops abrutly, and you are instructed to act out the remainder of the scene. Is this free, or is this extrapolating on your experience.

Skipping to fatalism, how probable is it that absolutely everything is determined. Reality is just a film we are both in and observing or experiencing, but all of it is already laid down. We are just unawares. Every strange plot twist and early exit was not only already scripted, but it’s already been captured. There is no room for improvisation or flubbed lines. There is no opportunity to go off-script. Even these words are predestined. Even unpublished thoughts were not meant to be published.

There is no way to test this sort of system from inside the system, and there is no way to get a vantage above it, so here we are.

The notion of determinism affords humans some modicum of agency, perhaps akin to one part in a trillion trillions. Practically, we are taking credit for a butterfly effect—and punishing for this degree of freedom. As Sapolsky has noted, most instances of perceived agency are trivial. We can ‘instruct’ finger movement with our brain. Ostensibly, we think: move finger; bend; point; stop. And even so, what was the cause of the thought to move the finger? Was there truly a non-causal event?

Cognotive dissonance ensures that we can’t allow ourselves to be NPCs or automotons. We have to omuch hubris for that. We must have some free will. Some religions say we not only have agency here in this life but that we chose the life to begin with. Even so, we’ve not seen the script in advance; we’ve merely chosen which lessons we want learnt.

So what about compatibilism? Sort of, who cares? Whilst I can define some interstitial state between free will and determinism, it seems that it would not be even tempered or would otherwise skew heavily toward determinism.

What keeps me from being a hard determinist is that I hold out hope for statistics, chaos, and stochasticism. One might argue in return, that these, too, are determined; we just don’t see the underlying connection. And that’s my cognitive cross to bear.

To be fair, it seems that the notion of free will or even compatibilism are secondary, let’s say, reactions to the need for culpability, for moral responsibility. Societies are built upon these notions, as are legal systems. Necessary ingredients to invent are:

  • ‘Individual’
  • Agency and Volition
  • Choice, Motivation, and Intent
  • Responsibilty and Blame

None of these actually exist, so they need to be invented and constructed in order to associate self-control to actions. In fact, we have insanity escape clauses to recognise that there are cases where control is lost, whether temporarily or permanently, or never had in the first place for any number of ‘reasons’. At core, these attributes are necessary to exert power in a society. The next goal is to convince the actors or subjects that these things are ‘real enough’— as the saying goes, ‘good enough for the government’.

Even if we accept these things at face value, the interpretation and processing of these are different animals still. The notion of Will itself is likely speceous or another fabricated notion. Perhaps, I’ll address Will on another day. Probably not, as all of this is distracting me from my language insufficiency work.

When I think about free will, it is foisted on humanity in the same manner as gods and religion. With gods, we have been defending against theism for millennia. The gods fetish and free will are inextricably linked. As with the chicken and egg connundrum, the question is whach came first. Is God a reaction to fee will, or is it the other way around. Did we create free will to allow for responsibility and then fabricate Supreme busy bodies to act as ultimate judges? Or did we create the gods and build out the myth of free will to accommodate punishment of deviant behaviour. Or are these just parallel constructions? Enquiring minds want to know.

Je m’accuse

I’ve been an absent owner. I’ve not been fertilising this blog as I’ve been attending to my professional blog and many other things IRL. But my brain doesn’t stop thinking, and I don’t stop reading just because my fingers stop typing contributions here. Today, I type.

No Free Will

The topic is the absence of free will debate. To be fair, I believe the notion of free will is a holdover from religious belief. And, like religion, it is used to control people and to formulate social cohesion and serve as the basis of legal systems. Free will and agency are core to any justice system. There is a system of laws. Conforming is good. Nonconformance is bad. People have agency to decide whether to conform. Relative to the system, a person is either conformant or not. Justice prevails. Nonconformance is punished, as it were. Society wins.

But let’s say there is no free will. I’m going to skip the entire argument and present this piece as a hypothetical. There is no free will. The universe is entirely deterministic. Now what?

Does anything happen? Does anyone notice?

If there is no free will, the universe already has embedded ‘code’ that will either reveal or conceal this information. If we are destined to know this, we’ll know it. If not, our future will unfold all the same.

If people have no real agency, can we punish them? Sure. We do it already. We inadvertently punish the innocent. We even punish those known to be innocent. But if history is pre-written and you are destined to be punished, the script has not only been written, but it’s already been recorded indelibly on film. We’re just waiting for the scene to come into view.

Given this, the so-called knowledge that there is no free will is useless. What’s the goal—to break the fourth wall and and liberate ourselves from the script? Wouldn’t that have already been scripted? What do you get—a director’s cut?

No Agency

What if it’s not so strict but that people don’t have agency? If people are all automatons, is it still ethical to punish them? Can rehabilitation be a goal if people are ostensibly wind-up dolls? If a person is a wind-up doll run amok, are we justified for separating them from the population at large?

I can see an argument for removing axe-wielding automatons from the public. And I’m sorry if they have no agency over their actions—like zombies. We all know what happens to zombies—and unmanaged zombies.

This scenario is different to that of a person who robs a store for food to eat—think Valjean in Les Misérables. This is an indictment of the system. If something needs fixing in this situation, it’s the system not the thief. But that’s not what generally happens. It’s easier to scapegoat a person than a system—even if that system is comprised of other people.