On Determinism

In my quest for background depth, I’m not only reading books, essays, blogs, and researched content, I’m viewing YouTube content, including the videos linked below that were reading and discussion groups. Perhaps I am interpreting it incorrectly, but these participants seem to invariably conflate the concept of determinism with an applied version of it.

In my mind, the concept is meant as a modal abstraction, which is to say if determinism were true, what degrees of freedom might one have? The idea is to accept this as a true premise, whether or not you accept or agree with it.

It’s like introductory physics—pretend there is no gravity; pretend there is no friction. I don’t believe any of these people would argue, “I can’t accept this environment. The world doesn’t work like that”. Except that’s exactly what they do when faced with determinism. It’s a mental model. Just work it as it’s presented.

Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Causal Determinism

By this definition, every event has an antecedent cause, the (future) result of which is one and only one outcome. It’s like viewing a film for the first time; you may not know the ending, but the ending is inevitable. If you rewind the film and replay it, the ending will remain the same at every viewing. Nothing anyone can do will alter the inevitability.

Free Will

Free will is a muddled notion that basically declares at some level humans make free choices based on their own agency; that they have control over how the future is written; that the future is yet unwritten, so the film analogy doesn’t hold water.

Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the belief that even in a fully deterministic universe. i.e., one in which everything is determined by some initial state as captured by the natural laws of physics still affords at least some limited notion of free will or at least proximate agency.

Adopting this belief in a deterministic universe necessitates relying on either metaphysical magic or semantic word games. Of course, there is nothing to say that you have to adopt a deterministic position, but if you do, you need to also explain how free will fits into the equation.

Incompatibilism

If one adopts the position of an incompatibilist this squaring up is no longer a problem, but then you are left to choose one or the other of the options as the two are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

Indeterminism

Although it is not necessary for any of the aforementioned monologue, indeterminism allows to some extent or another randomness to be introduced into the deterministic world. Effectively, this means that everything still operates in a causal chain or web, but stochastic or chaotic events perturb the future that might have otherwise happened.

This poses no challenges to the free will issue, as these are exogenous events and to the subject, they act the same as a deterministic event. In any case, if the source and behaviour of the indeterminacy were known, it would fold into the deterministic model. The same goes for luck and chance.

Third-Party Video Content

Whilst I found these videos engaging and useful, that the participants were not subject authorities was distracting and confusing. It was nice hearing them attempt to resolve their positions, but in the end, it turned out to reinforce Latour’s point in We Have Never Been Modern: consensus is more common than facts.

This bloke gives a crackup job explaining why compatibility is bollox.

Bonus

Whilst searching for cover art for this post, I happened upon a blog entry that makes my point with the author running off on tangents and non-sequiturs.

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.

Raising Kane

Robert Kane’s chapter in Four Views on Free Will is titled Libertarianism, and I’ve just finished it. I’ve been writing in the margins, and I’ll summarise my thoughts here.

TL;DR

As I wrote in my last post, I don’t find the Libertarian position on free will and agency compelling. Kane made some interesting points, but none persuaded me to buy what he was selling. The biggest challenge I had was to maintain focus because I think he was chasing red herrings—at least given my focus on agency. He spent a lot of time tearing down determinism and indeterminism instead of building up his own position. I feel the debate centres around agency. I waited for him to explain how this agency operated, but he just assumes agency—or at least a self to possess agency—from the start. I am not convinced. If you are interested, my more detailed commentary follows.

The Rest of the Story

My intent at the start is to approach this chronologically as I retrace my marginalia, hoping to recall whatever prompted my notes in the first place. I’ll be quoting or paraphrasing Kane’s positions to serve as a reference in the event you don’t have access to the book.

1, Determinism and the Garden of Forking Paths

Kane starts off by mentioning that determinism implies that ‘given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future‘. Within this unvarying environment, he writes, ‘We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents‘. I don’t disagree with either of these points, and, as agents, we are ‘capable of influencing the world in various ways‘.

Kane introduces a garden of forking paths illustration, which I’ve recreated here.

Garden of Forking Paths

He uses this as a visual decision tree, where an actor traverses the branches and makes decisions at the various vertices. To breathe life into this tree, he gives us one of several forthcoming examples. He introduces us to Jane.

In his scenario, Jane is faced with a decision with one of two possible outcomes, and ‘she believes there is more than one possible path into the future available to her and it is “up to her” which of these paths will be taken‘. He continues, ‘This picture of different possible paths into the future is also essential, I believe, to what it means to be a person and to live a human life‘.

And herein lies the rub. Jane is not making these decisions in a vacuum. She is a puppet to forces beyond her control. I shouldn’t be so hard on psychology and Freud, but as Luke 23:34 of the Christian Bible relates, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Then Kane reinforces that if determinism were true that Jane would not have free will before bringing up the idea of responsibility, that ‘free will is … intimately related to notions of accountability, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness for actions‘. I agree with Kane here.

Next, he invokes an emotional appeal-to-nature argument, asking us to imagine a ‘young man [who] is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death.’ He suggests that our tendency to blame this man is natural, but that we might search for mitigating circumstances that might account for his actions. He leaves us with a question, Did these influences entirely determine his actions, or did they “leave anything over” for him to be responsible for?

I have this question, too, but as I said, this is an appeal to emotion in the way Westerners have been conditioned to believe. There is little reason to accept this as some sort of universal law or principle.

2. Modern Challenges to Libertarian Free Will

He starts this section as follows, ‘I will be defending the libertarian view of free will in this volume. We libertarians typically believe that a free will that is incompatible with determinism is required for us to be truly morally responsible for our actions, so that genuine moral responsibility, as well as free will, is incompatible with determinism.’

He continues his setup, ‘A goal of this essay is therefore to consider this modern attack on the traditional libertarian view of free will and to ask how, and whether, it can be answered. Much is at stake, it seems to me, in knowing whether we do or do not have a freedom of the will of the ultimate kind that libertarians defend. The modern attack on it has two parts‘.

Part 1: The first prong of the modern attack on libertarian free will comes from compatibilists, who argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, determinism does not really conflict with free will at all.

[A]ccording to compatibilists, esoteric questions about whether determinism is true or not – in the physical or psychological sciences – are irrelevant to the freedoms we really care about in everyday life. All the varieties of free will “worth wanting” (as a modern compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, has put it) do not require the falsity of determinism for us to possess them, as the traditional libertarian view of free will suggests.

He informs the reader, ‘Influential philosophers of the modern era, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, were all compatibilists‘.

Kane ends part 1 with, ‘If compatibilists are right, we can have both free will and determinism; and we need not worry that increasing scientific knowledge about nature and human beings will somehow undermine our ordinary convictions that we are free and responsible agents.’

I agree with this statement. It’s also why I consider agency to be the pivotal target, not determinism.

In part 2, he writes ‘The second prong goes further, arguing that libertarian free will itself is impossible or unintelligible and has no place in the modern scientific picture of the world.

He conveys that ‘modern defenders of libertarianism, such as Immanuel Kant, have argued that we need to believe in libertarian free will to make sense of morality and genuine responsibility, but we can never completely understand such a free will in theoretical and scientific terms.’

This is a good point, and Kant is correct. As a moral non-cognitivist, I feel that morality is a non-sensical human social construct. Inventing free will to make sense of another invention doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Kant finishes with an appeal to noumenism, yet another concept I’ve got no time for.

Next, Kane introduces us to another foe of free will, indeterminism. ‘Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance. So if free actions were undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance.’

He ends this section with two issues a libertarian must address:

  • The Compatibility Problem: free will really is incompatible with determinism
  • The Intelligibility Problem: indeterminism can be made intelligible and how, if at all, such a free will can be reconciled with modern scientific views

3. Is Free Will Incompatible with Determinism?: The Consequence Argument

Kane opens with a plea, ‘[L]ibertarians who believe free will is incompatible with determinism can no longer merely rely on intuitions about “forking paths” into the future to support their view that determinism conflicts with free will. These intuitions must be backed up with arguments that show why free will must be incompatible with determinism.

If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.

Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, p. 16

Then he sets up The Consequence Argument:

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

In other words, we cannot now do otherwise than we actually do.

Indeed, I agree in principle with the logic, but I’ll reiterate that I feel that the entire determinism angle is a red herring. Next, Kane goes into a discussion about the Transfer of Powerlessness Principle.

In essence, TP ‘says in effect that if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.

As I don’t think it’s’ important to my ends and I agree with Kane’s critique of this tailing logic, if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.

Finally, he argues that there is a likely insurmountable semantic challenge that accepting one meaning of ‘can’ and ‘power’ (and some other terms) will determine [pun intended] if one is a compatibilist or not.

4. Ultimate Responsibility

Carrying over from the previous section, Kane reminds us that ‘as a result of this impasse, philosophical debates have multiplied about just what “can” and “power” (and related expressions, such as “could have done otherwise”) really mean‘. But he also concedes that ‘The problem is that focusing on “alternative possibilities” (or “forking paths” into the future) or the “power to do otherwise” alone, as the Consequence Argument does, is too thin a basis on which to rest the case for the incompatibility of free will and determinism.’

He sets up his position.

  1. Free will seems to require that open alternatives or alternative possibilities [AP] lie before us – a garden of forking paths – and it is “up to us” which of these alternatives we choose.
  2. Free will also seems to require that the sources or origins of our actions lie “in us” rather than in something else.

This second point he terms ultimate responsibility [UR].

The basic idea of UR is this: To be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient cause or motive for the action’s occurring.

To be ultimately responsible for the choice, the agent must be at least in part responsible by virtue of choices or actions voluntarily performed in the past for having the character and motives he or she now has.

This is what I am waiting for him to resolve. A red flag that has me on alert is the term character. This is on my list of weasel words. He also cites Aristotle as a reference—also relative to character—, so that’s a double red flag in my book.

He returns to his post that free will ‘does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. I call these earlier acts by which we formed our present characters “self-forming actions,” or SFAs‘.

My causa sui post already illustrates that Kane doesn’t actually answer the question of how the self forms the so-called self-forming actions. He just invents the term, appeals to idiomatic notions of self and declares victory. I recent post discussed the challenges with self.

In the sense that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he name-drops Daniel Dennett and a story Dennett had cited involving Martin Luther initiation of the Protestant Reformation. Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Kane then argues that Dennett’s deterministic interpretation is incorrect, but given that Dennett is a compatibilist, he doesn’t care if Luther was free or determined in a deterministic universe.

So the ability to do otherwise (“could have done otherwise”) or AP, says Dennett, is not required for moral responsibility or free will.

In the end, we are back into a language game—a semantic pissing match.

Continuing with Luther, Kane concedes, ‘We can grant that Luther could have been responsible for this act, even though he could not have done otherwise then and there and even if his act was determined. But this would be so, if UR is required, only to the extent that Luther was responsible for his present motives and character by virtue of some earlier struggles and self-forming actions.

I’m still left wondering how and when Kane is going to prove this argument.

Kane provides more context by telling us that an agent requires sufficient cause of motive, but he never does define sufficient. He is also aware that a causal chain can lead us back to the dawn of time, so he’s devised an angle:

‘The only way to stop this regress is to suppose that some acts in our life histories must lack sufficient causes altogether.’

Perfect. Let’s see how this works.

Now he’s bringing in his SFAs and character. No thank you, please.

‘UR makes explicit something that is often hidden in free will debates, namely that free will – as opposed to mere freedom of action – is about the forming and shaping of character and motives which are the sources or origins of praiseworthy or blameworthy, virtuous or vicious, actions.’

This is where the psychobabble word salad comes in full force. It feels that Kane is employing circular reasoning and claiming that free will is necessary to shape the character necessary to have free will. Perhaps I am missing something.

‘If persons are responsible for the wicked (or noble, shameful, heroic, generous, treacherous, kind or cruel) acts that flow from their wills (characters and motives), they must at some point be responsible for forming the wills from which these acts flow

This ‘forming’ argument feels like a non-sequitur. Let’s keep going.

5. Ultimate Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities

‘When one argues about the incompatibility of free will and determinism from alternative possibilities or AP (as in the Consequence Argument), the focus is on notions of “necessity,” “possibility,” “power,” “ability,” “can,” and “could have done otherwise.” By contrast, the argument from UR focuses on a different set of concerns about the “sources,” “grounds,” “reasons,” and “explanations” of our wills, characters, and purposes. Where did our motives and purposes come from, who produced them, who is responsible for them?’

These are my questions as well. He provides his answers to his own question:

‘To understand the connection between AP and UR, alternative possibilities and ultimate responsibility, we must first note that having alternative possibilities for one’s action – though it may be necessary for free will – is not sufficient for free will, even if the alternative possibilities should also be un-determined. This can be shown by noting that there are examples in which agents may have alternative possibilities and their actions are undetermined, and yet the agents lack free will.’

I can’t wait.

Next, he witters on about God and determinism and leaves us with the conclusion that ‘persons in such a world lack free will‘. Whew! Good thing.

I haven’t really addressed the issue here, but the very concept of will doesn’t sit right with me. It feels a bit magical, but let’s just leave that here.

This assertion relies on volition, cause, and motive—volition and motive feeling pretty weaselly.

Around here, he conveys a story about an assassin that I feel totally misses the mark. Pun intended because in this story, the assassin intent on shooting the Prime Minister gets an involuntary twitch and kills the aide instead.

‘UR captures this additional requirement of being the ultimate source of one’s will that is lacking in this imagined world. For UR says that we must be responsible by virtue of our voluntary actions for anything that is a sufficient cause or a sufficient motive (or reason) for our acting as we do.’

Kane says that the will of the assassin is sufficient motive and reason. I disagree. I’ll circle back to this in a moment with a robot assassin analogy. Kane goes on to say ‘Anything else he might do (miss the prime minister, kill the aide) would be done only by accident or mistake, unintentionally or unwillingly‘.

This second part is particularly interesting to me. If his intent was to kill the Prime Minister and failed but killed the aide without intention, does this mean he’s not culpable?

Kane tells us that ‘we are interested in whether they could have acted in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally, rather than only in one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally and in other ways merely by accident or mistake, unintentionally or irrationally.

Kane revisits UR: If (i) free will requires (ii) ultimate responsibility for our wills as well as for our actions, then it requires (iii) will-setting actions at some points in our lives; and will-setting actions require (iv) the plurality conditions, the ability to act in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally and rationally.

I’m feeling strongly that a person agreeing with this line of argumentation has to already agree with the underlying conditions. In fact, one cannot will oneself to believe in free will if one doesn’t and vice versa. I’m not inclined to agree.

Kane injects pangs of conscience into the equation. I’ll ignore it, as conscience in this context is wholly constructed. I understand that Kane wants to say that conscience is an impetus for free. I’ll disagree and level it at that.

If we are to be ultimately responsible for our own wills, some of our actions must be such that we could have done otherwise, because some of them must have been such that we could have done otherwise voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally.

We are still in agreement. Now what?

He closes with a dual regress of free will. We need to be ultimate sources of our actions and ultimate sources of our actions wills.

6. The Intelligibility Problem: Is Libertarian Free Will Possible?

Can we make sense of a free will that requires Ultimate Responsibility of the kind described in the previous section? Can we really be the ultimate designers of our own ends and purposes? There are many skeptics about free will who think not. They argue that being the ultimate source of one’s will and actions is an incoherent and impossible ideal…

Please. Are we there yet?

The “Intelligibility Problem” says that incompatibilist free will requires that ultimate responsibility is intelligible or possible and can be reconciled with modern scientific views of human beings.

Kane articulates how indeterminism and probability might affect free will and how, given the ‘exactly same past’, can possibly arrive at different outcomes on our forking paths. He provides an example. I’ll relate it, but mostly to critique his narrative.

Recalling the forking paths we have two scenarios. The premise is that, in the first scenario, John has to decide whether to travel to Hawaii or Colorado. Based on the state of his person, he chose Hawaii.

This can be illustrated about be following the green line from point T0 to T4b. At decision point T3a, John had to choose between Hawaii and Colorado. T4a represents his Hawaii preference.

Still looking at the same chart (above), under the second scenario, something ever so slightly changed and John could have chosen the top branch rather than the lower branch, thus choosing Colorado instead.

‘“If the past had been just a tiny bit different, then John might have sensibly and rationally chosen differently (chosen Colorado instead).” Determinists and compatibilists can say this.’

The problem (referring to the chart below) is that a different choice at T2, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, would have put him on a different path, choosing T3b on the lower branch over T3a on the upper branch. Therefore, the T4b option stemming from the upper T3a branch is not the same T4c option on the lower branch. Instead of a choice of travelling to Hawaii or Colorado, the choice may have between chicken or steak for dinner.

Whilst it is conceivable that the Colorado versus Hawaii decision might still occur, the person at T3 is not the same person.

Kane reintroduces Kant’s noumenal self by name, but he quickly discounts it on the grounds of obscurantism or mystery or “panicky metaphysics”. He’s right in doing so.

As Kane also admits creating the external actors tend to render supporters of these notions as nutters. Besides, if the external actor is the agent, it’s no different than a god doing it.

Before we move to the next section, I want to return to the assassin. My argument is that anyone, including the assassin, is a product of their environment. Full stop. Therefore, one cannot be responsible for anything. To illustrate this, let’s replace the human assassin with a robot assassin. We want to be sure the robot doesn’t twitch and miss.

The robot gets into place and does the assassination task as designed without a hitch (or a twitch). Is the robot in any way responsible for its actions? Not many would argue that it was. It was a victim of its own circumstances. Here, one might argue that the robot has no conscience, and so has no ability to do otherwise. The robot has been programmed. Even if this robot could acquire new information, it could only interpret it relative to the information and processes it already had. The human is no different. The human cannot transcend itself to invoke a different outcome. And any new input would. by definition, be an external influence.

7. Indeterminism and Responsibility

Kane wants to set the stage, so he conveys that ‘The first step in this rethinking about the Intelligibility Problem is to note that indeterminism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsibleonly those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely the “will-setting” or “self-forming actions” (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility.’

Kane believes that ‘believe these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become.’ Thus, he reintroduces character.

Next, he makes an assertion that I disagree with: ‘The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves.’ It should be obvious that I object to the notion of soul-searching from the start.

Kane advances another assertion: ‘Just as indeterminism need not undermine rationality and voluntariness of choices, so indeterminism in and of itself need not undermine control and responsibility.’ I suppose it may ‘need not’, but let’s see if it does.

Then he introduces an example from communications theory, suggesting that a person can willfully concentrate on the signal to overcome noise: ‘Whether you are going to succeed in solving the problem is uncertain and undetermined because of the distracting neural noise. Yet, if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, we have reason to say you did it and are responsible for it, even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle that you overcame by your effort’. My margin note reads ‘silly’. I’ll just leave it at that.

8. Parallel Processing

I’ll admit at the start, that this section was just an annoyance, adding little to Kane’s position. My commentary will be brief.

Kane brings in his SFAs and suggests that if we are at a decision point with two (or multiple) options, each option is processed on its own thread. Reflecting on a woman faced with a decision, he tells us that ‘the choice the woman might make either way will not be “inadvertent,” “accidental,” “capricious,” or “merely random” (as critics of indeterminism say) because the choice will be willed by the woman either way when it is made, and it will be done for reasons either way – reasons that she then and there endorses.

NB: Underlined words in the paragraph above represent Kane’s italicised words in the chapter text.

Here, Kane continues down a rabbit hole wintering on about SFAs. I’m not convinced. It’s getting late. I’m getting cranky. I’ll will myself to continue. [Yes, that’s a joke.]

9. Responsibility, Luck, and Chance

Kane now wants to remind us that although one might ‘still find it hard to shake the intuition that if choices are undetermined, they must happen merely by chance – and so must be “random,” “capricious,” “uncontrolled,” “irrational,” and all the other things usually charged‘, and that ‘such intuitions are deeply ingrained‘.

Fair enough. Also interesting is how ingrained the sense of self and soul is, but never mind that for now.

Kane continues to unwind the bias he notes. His punchline is this:

‘(Imagine the assassin’s lawyer arguing in the courtroom that his client is not guilty because his killing the prime minister was undetermined and might therefore have failed by chance. Would such a defense succeed?)’

The ‘law’ is not seeking this truth. it is seeking blame and will go to great lengths to do so. Law is about closure. This feels like a strawman on a non-sequitur. Nothing to see here. Let’s keep on.

Kane’s final blow is that if ‘they endorsed the outcomes as something they were trying and wanting to do all along, knowingly and purposefully, not by mistake or accident‘, then they are responsible.

This reminds me of something that may or may not have been uttered by the Dalai Lama explaining the mechanics or scoring system that karma operates by. There are effectively three dimensions of karma:

  • Intent
  • Action
  • Reaction

Intent is the desire to do something, whether to give a gift or assassinate a Prime Minister.

Action is the activity itself: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.

Reaction is your emotional response: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.

Exploring this, say a person gains or loses a karmic point for each good or bad thing and receives no point where an event did not happen.

Let’s start with the assassin.

If your intent is to kill someone, you lose a karma point. Sort of a thought crime, I guess. [-1]

If you do kill the Prime Minister, you’ve lost another point. [-1]

Now, if you feel good about your success in this case, you lose yet another point [-1], netting you with minus 3 [-3] all tolled. However, if you feel remorse, you gain a point [+1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].

Let’s say you have no intent to kill the Prime Minister, yet you lose control of your vehicle and smash into them. S/he dies instantly.

You get no intent point—positive or negative. [0]

You lose a point for the action. Sorry, Charlie. [-1]

Now, if you feel remorse about this event, you gain another point [+1], netting you with zero [0] all tolled. However, if you didn’t really like the Prime Minister and start singing—even in your head—Ding, Dong, the witch is dead, you lose another point [-1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].

Let’s try gift-giving.

If you want to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]

If you don’t follow through, you lose a karma point [-1], leaving you with zero [0]. There is no cause for reaction, so you remain at zero.

Let’s up the game a bit and instead of just wanting to buy a gift, you promise to buy one.

If you promise to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]

If you don’t follow through, you lose a point [-1], leaving you with zero [0].

If you feel good about the ensuing disappointment, you lose another point. [-1]

If you feel bad about it, you regain a karma point [+1], so you are ahead of the game. And this, boys and girls, is how you game karma. But karma is ahead of your sorry ass, and it takes back the point. And then it takes away a penalty point if you don’t feel sorry about being a jerk.

But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, I do not endorse Kane’s endorsement idea.

10. Choice, Agency, Efforts, and Causes: Further Objections Considered

If indeterminism is involved in a process (such as the woman’s deliberation) so that its outcome is undetermined, one might argue that the outcome must merely happen and therefore cannot be somebody’s choice. But there is no reason to assume such a claim is true‘, Kane relates. More subterfuge.

Self-forming choices are undetermined, but not uncaused‘, Kane says. Tell me more.

They are caused by the agent’s efforts.’ Them’s fighting words.

He continues, ‘Perhaps indeterminism does not undermine the idea that something is a choice simply, but rather that it is the agent’s choice. This objection raises important questions about agency. What makes the woman’s choice her own on the above account is that it results from her efforts and deliberation, which in turn are causally influenced by her reasons and her intentions (for example, her intention to resolve indecision in one way or another). And what makes these efforts, deliberation, reasons, and intentions hers is that they are embedded in a larger motivational system realized in her brain

A choice is the agent’s when it is produced intentionally by efforts, by deliberation and by reasons that are part of this self-defining motivational system and when, in addition, the agent endorses the new intention or purpose created by the choice into that motivational system as a further purpose to guide future practical reasoning and action.’

My reaction is that this so-called agent is just an invention.

Since those causally relevant features of the agent, which can be counted among the causes of the woman’s choice, are her reasons or motives, her conscious awareness and her deliberative efforts, we can also say that she is the cause of the choice by virtue of making the efforts for the reasons and succeeding.’

Just no.

Next, Kane conveys a situation where a guy smashes a glass table and blames it on chance events, ending with this argument.

We tend to reason that if an outcome (breaking a table or making a choice) depends on whether certain neurons fire or not (in the arm or in the brain), then the agent must be able to make those neurons fire or not, if the agent is to be responsible for the outcome.’

Let’s see if he comes up from this rabbit hole in the next section.

11. Responsibility and Control: Three Assassins

Watch out. Kane is doubling down—nay, tripling down—on the assassins. His primary argument appeals to emotion and indoctrination—the social programming of the reader.

‘Is the assassin less guilty of killing the prime minister, if he did not have complete control over whether he would succeed because of the indeterminism in his neural processes?’

Robert Kane, Four views on Free Will

Kane recalls the dilemma that I discussed in my Citizen Kane post of a woman to continue to the office or to help someone being mugged, and asserts (without evidence) that this is volitional and ‘is coming from her own will‘.

There must be hindrances and obstacles to our choices and resistance in our own wills to be overcome, if we are to be capable of genuine self-formation and free will. Compare Evodius’s question to St Augustine (in Augustine’s classic work On the Free Choice of the Will).

This seems like plausible logic, I suppose. But it doesn’t follow from this definition that self-formation—genuine or otherwise—or free will exists.

I tuned out at the God talk.

12 Conclusion: Complexity and “Being an Author of One’s Own Story”

Finally. The last section of this chapter before I turn to John Martin Fischer’s chapter on Compatibilism.

Kane introduces the complexity of chaotic systems next.

Agents, according to this modern conception with ancient roots, are to be conceived as information-responsive complex dynamical systems. Complex dynamical systems are the subject of “dynamical systems theory” and also of what is sometimes popularly called “complexity theory.” They are systems (which are now known to be ubiquitous in nature) in which new emergent capacities arise as a result of greater complexity or as the result of movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium toward the edge of chaos.’

Only when creatures attain the kind of inner complexity capable of giving rise to conflicts in their wills, or motivational systems, between incommensurable values does the capacity for self-formation characteristic of free will arise.’

Supposing a reaction by critics, he asks himself, ‘Even if one granted that persons, such as the businesswoman, could make genuine self-forming choices that were undetermined, isn’t there something to the charge that such choices would be arbitrary?

His response is that we can’t really answer this question and tries to redirect the reader’s attention to the semantics of the word arbitrary. In the end, his final position is that this is the right approach because he can feel it in his bones.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

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