Free Will Scepticism: Determinism, Indeterminism, and Luck

Making video content for even the simplest of concepts is time-consuming, but I wanted to create some visual content. Even though this material is hardly controversial, I feel it is important to set the stage for more advanced conversations.

Video: Free Will Scepticism: Determinism, Indeterminism, and Luck

I am getting better at understanding how the video editor works, so subsequent videos should be of higher quality. As I use free repurposed video content, I am forced to accept what’s available. In plenty of cases, more apt content is available from Adobe or iStock, but I can’t justify purchasing content at this time—especially given that the channel isn’t even monetised. Patience.

Follows is the transcript I used as a guide.

Free Will Scepticism. Determinism, Indeterminism & Luck

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In this segment of free will scepticism, I talk about what free will is, why it’s important, and why it creates challenges that lead to a debate that’s lasted millennia.

Once we’ve established a foundation, we’ll look at the nemesis of free will that is determinism and its attendant nuances—indeterminism and luck.

As we unravel this problem, we’ll evaluate the relationship between these and whether these competing concepts can coexist.

In future segments, I intend to dig deeper into the question of free will as it relates to human agency and moral responsibility.

Defining Free Will

A good starting point is to define our terms. As we’ll discover, a fundamental challenge in the free will debate is that there is no common, agreed-upon definition, so let’s at least put some on the table.

A quick Google search yields these two definitions.

  1. the apparent human ability to freely and consciously make choices that are not externally determined
  2. the doctrine that such human freedom of choice is not illusory
    Let’s break down the first one by touching on the terms. This is an ability. No controversy here. Choices are the focus of this ability, and this ability is limited to humans. Not everyone limits the notion of free will to humans. In general, the reason free will gets so much attention is in relation to moral choice. As we don’t generally impose morality on non-human animals, we can live with this for now.

Note that this definition concedes that this is just an apparent human ability. This is because some people believe that if free will exists at all, it is just an illusion.

This ability. I’ll drop the ‘apparent’ qualifier so I don’t come across like an attorney and their ‘alleged’ perpetrator. This ability needs to be made freely and consciously. Free means without restriction, and consciously means with conscious intent. The definition further qualifies the free and conscious choice-making by stating that these choices are not externally determined. A person cannot be under a spell, hypnotised, or driven by unconscious intents. We’ll eventually see that disagreement centres around each of these terms, freely, conscious, and externally determined.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, an excellent online resource, defines free will as ‘a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives’. The ability to freely make choices is a common thread for all of these.

Another way to think about free will is to ask if you could have chosen otherwise. This is a thought experiment, and we’ll spend more time on this later. If you could turn back the clock and rerun the scenario, could you have chosen otherwise.
As Jerry Coyne put it, ‘if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different’.
Let’s work through a simple scenario with no moral implications. All of the events of your life have led up to this moment. A server asks, tea or coffee. You choose tea. Black or lemon—or cream? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Let’s re-run the scenario. Everything leading up to this server asking for your order is the same—the same seat at the same table, in the same restaurant, the same server. Even the same jelly stain on the curtain and the same blue Buick parked outside your window. And the same parent trying to quiet her unruly child. You get the idea. Everything until now has played out the same. Last time you ordered tea. Do you possess the free will to order coffee this time around?
We don’t need to answer this question quite yet. Keep whatever idea you have and we can compare it against the competing perspectives.

You might be thinking, so what? Who cares? Why is free will so important?

Free will is not just some abstract philosophical concept. Philosophy gets accused of pondering topics with no application in the real world. What is the sound of one hand clapping sort of fare.

Free will is at the centre of human agency and autonomy. The only reason it makes sense to praise or blame someone is because they could have done otherwise. We might praise a robot that was programmed to rescue people from fires. Even if we marvelled at the achievement of the robot, we’d more likely praise the programmer or the operator over the robot.

Likely more important than praise is blame. Humans’ propensity for blame could be its own series, so let’s just consider the notion idiomatically. If a person is remotely controlling a robot and steers it into your table, spilling your tea, you may be miffed at the robot, but your blame will be aimed at the one who’s holding the remote controller.

After blame comes punishment, or reward in the case of praise. This is another subdiscipline in its own right, so let’s continue.

Many people just presume that free will exists, so where are the challenges?
First, the definition of free will is unstable, and it has drifted over time. Sometimes this has been innocent enough whilst at other times the definition has been amended to suit an argument. Sort of moving the goal posts. So, there’s no standard definition. This means that I can accept the notion under one definition and reject it under another. This hardly makes for fruitful debate.

Related to these first two is that for some people, the concept is reduced to something so narrow, so laser-focused, that it doesn’t seem to matter in the real world. Daniel Dennett has said that he’d be willing to concede that one doesn’t have free will except in matters of decisions in the order of ‘one cube of sugar or two in your tea’ or ‘taking the lavender blouse over the lilac one’. If you contend that this is the limiting boundary for free will, sure. You’ve got free will, for what it’s worth.

Still others say that free will is nothing more than an illusion. That a person perceives having free will is akin to perceiving that the sun rises in the East. We know this not to be true, and yet it appears to be true. We even commit this faulty observation to language, and it’s difficult not to envisage it differently.

The strongest position against free will comes from the Impossibilists, who hold unsurprisingly, the belief that free will is impossible given what we know about physical laws and the universe. Galen Strawson is likely the most notable of these people.

Determinism

Contrary to free will is Determinism. Defined, Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will.

Ostensibly, this is a strong belief in cause and effect. That every event is caused by a prior event. The implication is that if one were to turn back time to the Big Bang and let history run again, everything down to the smallest atomic movement would run the same course of events. Absolutely nothing would change. This includes any thoughts and decisions. Unchanged.

Given this worldview, some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Without going too deep, Determinism can be a view adopted from a sectarian or secular perspective. The sectarian narrative is that God created the natural laws and set the universe in motion. The secular vantage is that there are physical laws, and the big bang set the universe in motion. These days, not many people hold this view. Indeterminism is the reason.

Indeterminism

Indeterminism is another idea cursed with multiple definitions. The name originated as a counterargument to Determinism, hence the ‘in‘ prefix in the name. Not determinism.
Indeterminism says that deliberate choice and actions are not determined by or predictable from antecedent causes, or that although there may be deterministic behaviours in the universe,
not every event has a cause.

I’d like to qualify ‘not every event has a cause’ to ‘not every event has a known cause’ or some events have probabilistic causes, hence indeterminate. There is a bit of overlap here with the notion of luck, and we’ll get to that presently.

Our knowledge of physics and the advent of quantum mechanics has put hard determinism out of favour. As we saw, under strict determinism, if we turned back time, the future would always unfold identically. Think of this as a film strip or a video. No matter how many times you replay it the events manifest the same way. You can warn the camper not to go down into the cellar alone, but every time, she will. You can almost think of this as a sort of fate, although one must be careful to note that rewinding and replaying to the parts we’ve already seen does not mean that we can predict what we haven’t.

Quantum physics notes that there are many events that are stochastic or probabilistic. So even if you rewound and played it again, it would be like the girl flipping a coin before opening the cellar door—or I suppose the director. Heads, she goes down. Tails, she remains up, or she gets a friend.

The less strict version of Indeterminism doesn’t say that nothing is determined. Rather, that there are enough probabilistic events that we can’t claim to know what’s going to happen next.

Luck

Then there’s luck. Luck is also indeterministic, but it tries to clarify some cases. By definition, luck is success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions. If you flip a fair coin or throw a fair die or pull the handle on a slot machine, you may win or lose, but this outcome had nothing to do with you except that you were there at that moment. But there is more to it than this because a strict Determinist might claim that the outcome was determined by the state of molecules in history, that if you reran history, it would unfold the same way.

Apart from the luck that we tend to think of in gambling—good luck and bad—, there is the notion of moral luck, that is treating people as objects of moral judgement even when what they do depends on factors out of their control.

Not all luck is created equal, so let’s look at the various flavours of luck. Most of these were articulated by Thomas Nagel.

Resultant Luck

Resultant luck is the way things turn out. This notion evaluates luck in reverse. It involves what is known as survivorship bias.

I’ll share a true story. An acquaintance of mine got married and took a honeymoon in Jamaica. On holiday, the couple ate some seafood. His wife became sick and was hospitalised. There she died.
One can imagine a story with a happier ending, where the couple took holiday and won a large cash prize in a casino, again a situation that could not have happened unless they had happened to be there.
In the first case, one might say she had bad luck. In the second case, her luck was good.

Circumstantial Luck

Circumstantial luck is the circumstance one finds oneself in. You had no control over how you got to a certain place, but because you got there, you are faced with a choice. The gist of this is that the choice would not have been given, so you would never have made it.

Perhaps, expecting you to be out, a burglar enters your home one evening and you confront him and he shoots you (or you shoot him; it doesn’t matter). Maybe you were driving to someplace and another vehicle crashes into yours, totalling it. This is circumstantial. You had no intention of getting into an accident. Had you not been driving, this could not have happened. Perhaps, because of the accident, you won a lawsuit that yielded you a lot of money; perhaps, your back was irreparably damaged. Circumstantial luck.

Constitutive Luck

Constitutive luck relates to who one is or their traits and dispositions. Think of this as character. Some people are ‘born’ with a persuasive disposition. Some are born to excel at football or maths. Some are The Rain Man. This is the genetic lottery. Perhaps you want to be a famous singer. Only you can’t sing. And maybe you can sing, but you lack charisma.

Billionaire Warren Buffett readily concedes that he would not likely be a billionaire if he happened to be born in India rather than the United States. This is constitutive luck.

Present Luck

Present luck is about luck at or around the moment of a putatively free action or decision point. This is a term used by Levy, borrowed from Mele. At any point in time, you are who you are and where you are as a matter of luck. You were born in a place at a time in history into a family. Heidegger called this ‘thrownness’. A person is thrown into this world and has to survive or not on their own terms. In any case, this family moulded you and schooled you with whatever constraints that they may have had: money, class, access, location. All the usual suspects. You interacted with the kids who were available. You got whatever teachers you got, and on and on. I think you get it. None of this is within your control.
Examples I think of are musical acts, bands like The Beatles, Korn, U2, and so many others that are comprised entirely or largely of friends. They just happened to be born in the same general time and vicinity. I imagine if either of these were different, they wouldn’t have manifested the same way. Imagine Mozart being born in the 21st century. Perhaps he’d be a YouTube star. Who knows?

Causal Luck

Causal luck is how one is determined by antecedent circumstances. This is the type of luck most closely aligned with free will and determinism. Simply put, it says that everything that preceded you is outside of your control as is everything leading up to what you have become. Causal luck is about the directional relationship between cause and effect.

For the record, some view causal luck as redundant to the combination of constitutive and circumstantial luck. I think that’s a fair charge, but let’s continue and see how these concepts play together.

At the highest level, there are two competing perspectives. Free will and determinism are either incompatible or compatible. Let’s begin with incompatibilism.

Incompatibilism

As it would seem, this view holds that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive. This holds for indeterminism as well. One cannot simultaneously hold the view that everything is determined, and that one can still manage to have free will in this determined universe.

A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings

SAM HARRIS

Sam Harris famously wrote, ‘a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings’. Harris is a neuroscientist and free will sceptic, who believes that free will is an illusion. And I was determined to not let this image go to waste.

Compatibilism

Finally, we have compatibilism, where the belief is that free will and determinism can coexist—and do. There are two basic reasons this might be possible: metaphysics or emergence.

Metaphysics

I’ll let you know that I find the metaphysical argument to be weak tea. The argument is that maybe there is a god or something not bound by the constraints of our universe, who can put ideas into your brain, thus manipulating your decision. You were going to order tea, but this intervention led you to order coffee. I think that this perspective falls on its face right out of the gate. If some force is controlling you, the resulting actions may not have been predictably determined, but neither are they caused by you. In this scenario, this force might as well be the person controlling the robot to spill your tea.

Emergence

Then there’s emergence. Quickly, emergence is the notion that one can combine two or more elements with the outcome being a substance with different ‘emergent’ properties. An example most people are familiar with is the combining of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water. Two Hs plus an O creates H20. Hydrogen and Oxygen are both gasses, but water is a liquid with a further emergent property of being wet.

The argument is that this free will occurs independently of all the inputs and processes. If this were true, then free will and determinism could coexist. There is no evidence of this, and I’ll just leave it here.
I intend to add to this by reviewing articles for and against free will and the compatibilist position.

Do you believe you have free will? If so, why. Are you a determinist or an indeterminist? Are you a compatibilist or an incompatibilist?

Let me know in the comments below.

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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.

[Redacted]

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.

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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

BUILDING BLOCKS  2014
H200, W300, D10 cm
Carved wood, single light source, shadow
Permanent Collection Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo, Japan

No-Self, Selves, and Self

An idea that Galen Strawson mentions is that of the self and the case of self and selves. I’ll presume he also considers the case of no-self, but I haven’t heard his position on this—at least not yet.

About the No-Self

In the East, Buddhism teaches the notion of no-self or non-self. Anattā (अनत्ता) captures the idea of the everchanging. By this doctrine, nothing is permanent. Any separation from this is merely an illusion. In principle, this leads to the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering is due to attachment
  3. This attachment can be overcome
  4. There is a path to achieve this (the eight-fold path)

Life just is suffering.

There are many incantations of this, but these four capture the essence. The points here are that life just is suffering. No one escapes this fate—not wealth nor power—because we become attached to these things. The self (or Ego) is another attachment. In identity politics, people tend to get upset when you don’t accept or at least identify with their self-perception. Personally, I don’t believe in identity, but I understand how it is meant idiomatically, so I can operate in this space.

About the Selves

What Strawson says (at the risk of misinterpreting him egregiously), is we have many selves. We are a composite of time slices. As he quipped, each Planck time moment is a new self. We tend to construct these selves into a single self—I suppose in the manner that a 2-hour film shot at 60 frames a second would consist of 432,000 frames and yet have a continuity analogous to a self.

Self, No-Self, Selves Depictions

About the Self

In the West, the notion of self is as ubiquitous and uncritically accepted as rights, private property, and Democracy. As their Declaration of Independence reads, some things are self-evident. This self is obviously constructed, so let’s look at how these selves are merged.

Selves to Self

Cognitive processes function to stitch these time-sliced selves into a cohesive narrative about ourselves. In fact, it tends to pick out keyframes of memorable events. Strawson posits that there are (at least) two types of people: Those who create these identity narratives, and those who don’t. Given the pressure toward self, especially in the West, it may be awkward or uncomfortable for those who don’t toe the line in this arena. And if you don’t abide to the notion of self, don’t worry, you’ll be burdened with at least one, more likely one per person you interact with—or observed by. As in the US justice system promises relative to legal representation, if you don’t have one, one will be appointed for you. (I’ll spare you another psychology cum pseudoscience rant.)

There are two types of people: Those who create these identity narratives, and those who don’t

Some religions attempt to solve compositing the selves into a self by introducing a soul that acts as a core. In some belief systems, this sole is even able to serve as a core for some future incarnation and some versions of karma carry with it burdens of past lives.

I am partial to the Selves interpretation. Some Gestalt and apophenia—not to be confused with apotheosis, albeit perhaps related—serve to do the heavy lifting. I don’t think that any (or at least many) people disagree with the idea, even if one is partial to the notion of a self, that a person is not the same at 1, 10, and 100. We can identify this person as Sanjit, at each observation, but Sanjit is materially different at each point. We just construct a narrative as in the case of the film frames. I can’t imagine it’s easy for a person indoctrinated into a world of ‘self’ that seriously grasping a sense of ‘non-self’.

It seems, I’m disrtracted and rambling at the moment, so I’ll end here. I think I’ve captured the essence of my thoughts.

Under the Influence

Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.

My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.

I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist

In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.

At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.

After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.

I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.

I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor

In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.

Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.

For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.

And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.

Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power

Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.

But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.

  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think

Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:

  1. Something that expands rather than confirms
  2. Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored

As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.

[Video] Galen Strawson — Is Free Will a Necessary Illusion?

Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.

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.