I am trying to avoid commenting on the recent SCOTUS decision and how it is symptomatic of how the United States remains a failed state—at least a zombie state—, so this preamble should suffice for now.
I was chatting politics into the wee hours with my son, who’s been on this earth for almost 25 years now. I consider myself to be on the left of traditional political scales. He considers himself to be on the right, but he’s trying to make sense of the scales and dimensions. He had two questions: First, ‘What are the crucial dimensions and positions that define left and right?’ Second, ‘Where do Liberals fit into the equation?’
Knowing me, he wanted to provide some context and confer with me his knowledge that would also serve to frame and anchor the conversation. A key point was to have clarified the adopted nomenclature and positioning on a theoretical map.
We started with the origins of the left-right distinction, which was barely a valid dichotomy even as it was coined in France. There was no duolith. Those on the left or right had features in common but taken holistically, this was a reductionist categorisation, as tends to happen. Exacerbating this, as it does today, still, the politicians with voices remained to the right of the unvoices masses.
He asked about the difference between freedom and liberty because his sources differentiate the two. Whilst connotation and nuance may enter the picture, etymologically speaking, freedom is a native English word whilst liberty is French via Latin. Connotatively, freedom is an absolute measure whilst liberty is granted within a political framework. Positive and negative liberties aside, liberty is an attenuator. It restricts freedom even if it allows most of the signal through. Effectively, liberty is permission by the state to act in certain ways.
By the end of the conversation, he was framing the key difference around notions of national identity and nationalism—I versus we. I shared my thoughts on the construction of identity, thus making for a poor foundation, though we both agreed that national narratives have been the impetus for much activity. (I am reluctant to insert the word progress here.)
After our conversation, I began researching dimensions established or otherwise proposed by political science. This led me to a place I found interesting—the distinction between radical, progressive, conservative, and reactionary positions. For some reason, this never really occurred to me.
I’m not sure one can employ these terms in general discussion without definition and qualification, but I feel they are useful in their own right. Typically, I view the political landscape—at the highest level and with a US-bent—as Left (communists, socialists, anarchists, progressives) and Right (conservatives, liberals, and fascists). I also know that this is imprecise, but maps always are.
This new vocabulary helps by distilling the map to this—ordered differently:
Conservatives want to maintain the status quo. This is interesting usage adoption. Fundamentally, advocates of this view want to promote and to preserve traditional social institutions and practices. In Western culture, conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as organized religion, parliamentary government, and property rights. Conservatives tend to favour institutions and practices that guarantee stability and evolved gradually. Adherents of conservatism often oppose progressivism and seek a return to traditional values
My first thoughts when I hear the term are a harkening back to the old ways—the Ozzie and Harriott mythos, white picket fences, Mom and apple pie. But this is different. Effectively, rather than reaching back, it wants to preserve the current moment in time. Where it gets more nebulous, I think, is that some people include nostalgia in the now. Duratively, perhaps a person might remember some aspect of their childhood. Though this has been lost by now, they imagine it as part of their identity. This can also extend further back as they wish some other historical aspects can be cherry-picked. Perhaps the white conservative wishes to be able to subjugate women as was the practice in the 1950s of America, but to not conserve high union participation and high marginal tax rates, as affronts to freedom (or whatever). This ends up being an exercise in selective memory and revisionist history-making.
This needs to be distinguished from a so-called traditional conservativism in the tradition of Burke or Hobbes, who want to conserve some sense of fundamental morality they feel derives from nature.
Reactionaries oppose whatever is in effect at the moment—the petulant toddler—but with a twist. Like the conservatives, there is a conservation effort but rather than a focus on the status quo, the focus is on status quo ante, which is a return to the old ways, tried and true.
Progressives support social reform. Ostensibly, they don’t oppose tradition, but they feel that old structures need to be reimagined and reinterpreted in face of social and technological change. An underlying metanarrative is the notion of progress. I am not going to comment on progressivism generally and the nuances evident in the American flavour of it.
To me, these terms operate on a gravity to now. Conservatives are heavily anchored in the familiar and seek stability. Then they see factors in the past that they imagine will also serve this purpose, so they wish to incorporate these and carry them forward. Conservatives are not unaware of the need for change, they just want to not create waves in the process.
Likewise, although placing a heavier weight on the past than even conservatives, reactionaries are not fundamentally opposed to retaining what is working currently. The term working is subjective and perspectival, so they may wish to retain something that works for them at the expense of others. This is a challenge for conservatism as well. Just because racial segregation seemed to work for an equivalent person in the past doesn’t mean it worked well for the excluded.
Like reactionaries, progressives aren’t afraid of keeping a foot in the present—and there may be plenty of lessons to learn from the past—, but they feel that given the change in the underlying terrain, some refactoring is in order.
And then there are the radicals. I suppose that radicals have different motivators, but in essence, they feel that the current implementation is substantially broken, and it needs more than a few small tweaks and a fresh coat of paint. These people are renovating rather than redecorating. They may even want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some may wish to keep the baby.
As for me, I usually place myself in the Progressive camp, but under the definition, I am more of a radical. The system is broken. We don’t just need to delete it, we need to install a new one.
Thomas Jefferson said that the United States should rewrite the Constitution every 19 years. Why 19 years? Who knows? Given the intransigence in American politics, this would have been a disaster. And given the powers that be, the debate would be over which parts to conserve and which to progress. Being the cynic that I am, my guess is that it would devolve to worse than we have now.
DISCLAIMER: For the record, I don’t endorse the placement of the political ideologies on the horseshoe image, but I find it interesting and it grabbed my attention. I hope it grabbed yours, too.
Gregg Caruso is interested in the notion of Agency from the perspective of justice, desert, and sentencing. This is applied philosophy.
My main argument against the possibility of free will is Nietzsche-Strawson’s causa sui argument, which I’ve touched on a few times by now, but I haven’t yet fully articulated my position. I’ll get to that another day. I’d also like to create another video, as I would like to do for this as I explore in more detail.
Ostensibly, this is a compatibilist view that leaves a modicum of free will, even with causa sui in place. I hope this illustration will be helpful.
In the centre of the illustration is you, the self of some arbitrary person who shall act as our subject. Let’s assume a couple of basic premises:
We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
Causa sui is in full force and effect: one cannot cause any aspect of one’s self.
I include the term relaxed in the first premise, so I don’t have to deal with a fully deterministic universe governed entirely by the notion captured by Schrödinger’s equation. The second premise is in place to serve as a limitation: even if consciousness is an emergent property, its emergence doesn’t grant some insuperable metaphysical powers. One cannot reach outside of one’s self.
The scenario plays out as follows. You have been apprehended for violating some statute. Let’s say that you’ve taken an item from a retail store. As you are leaving the store, the police stop you. When asked if you took the item, you answer in the affirmative. This is a very efficient municipality, so you are taken immediately to a magistrate to make a plea.
In this scenario, Caruso is your attorney at law. His argument is that, given causa sui, you cannot be responsible for who you are. We’ve been here before. Since you can’t be responsible for who you are, any sentence to punish you would be unethical, as you’ve done nothing to deserve it. This is the notion of desert in the realm of retributive justice.
The judge buys this argument, but s/he counters with three possible courses of action. You may not be responsible for who you are, but we are a community of laws. You are a victim of your circumstances, so we cannot look backwards. For whatever reason—and through no fault of your own, by definition—, you were broken relative to complying with community norms.
Firstly, we may wish to make an example of you, to signal the community that we will incarcerate people who break the laws. This is more a public service purpose than a punishment.
Secondly, if you had contracted a communicable disease—we’re looking at you Covid—, you can be quarantined under the consideration of the common good. Framed this way, it is not a punishment, we just don’t want it to happen again.
Lastly, we may also be justified on the grounds of rehabilitation. I highlight the ‘re‘ in rehabilitation because some people may not have been ‘habilitated’ in the first place. Perhaps think of them as feral. In any case, a computer programming analogy might make sense here.
So what’s this all about? Remember, causa sui says that you cannot be held responsible for creating yourself. The claim is that you are a product of your nature and nurture. Genetically speaking, perhaps there was some reason that you could not incorporate inputs into factors that allowed you to appropriately interpret this law—or any law, more generally. Or maybe, you were never exposed to this law or category of law before.
In the preventative vein, we could be signalling, ‘We caught You taking an item from a shop without paying. Now you know this, and we may make an example of you since you are caught as well’.
Quarantine may be a bit of a stretch in this scenario, so feel free to substitute a more serious offence if it helps you to remember this. Perhaps You killed someone. Even without punishment, we may want to get You off the streets before another killing is perpetrated. I’ll come back to this one.
Rehabilitation makes sense even if one is not responsible for one’s self. Presuming that you are a product of programming—family, culture, peers, and so on—, perhaps you just need to be rewired. Perhaps a particular subroutine was not implemented or activated correctly. This rationality could be used as a non-punitive justification.
The public prevention case may be why offenders were pilloried in by-gone days. Display in a public square may inform some who may have missed the lesson the first time around, hence dissuading taking similar actions. But unless this ‘public service message’ reached enough people, it would probably not be the best rationale.
Quarantine may sound OK on the surface, but it’s actually rather specious. Firstly, that You knicked a trinket. What exactly is the risk of contagion? Petty theft is not known to be particularly communicable. Secondly, just because you’ve done something once is little measure of whether you’ll do it again. In fact, if this were true, then one might have assumed that you could never have committed the offence because of your history.
Rehabilitation may likely be the best option among these. If you missed that particular lesson or had forgotten or diminished the calculus, remediation may do just the trick. However, if your ‘operating system’ is not up to snuff, it’s not a matter of inputs. It’s a matter of processing capability.
Psychological intervention is in its infancy, so the probability of remediating this is low, if not a crap shoot. And not all such processes can be remediated. This could lead one to fall back on the quarantine option, but who is the competent assessor in this case?
It’s easy enough to assess if You is Hannibal Lecter or tells you straight out that s/he intends to repeat the offence. Some cognitive deficiencies are simple enough to recognise. But what about the grey areas—all of that space in between?
And who is making sure that the judges are not being punitive simply because they haven’t yet eaten lunch?
Bringing this to a close, if we have no free will, it makes no sense to punish. Sadly, most justice systems promote retributive justice and punishment in sentencing. I’ll spare you my diatribe on how I believe most people attracted to jurisprudence, law, and law enforcement have been conditioned. And whilst Caruso feels justified in foreword action, I am more sceptical. This said, I’ll take what I can get.
This post is pretty much a stream of consciousness. I hope to give it better treatment in a future video.
Making video content for even the simplest of concepts is time-consuming, but I wanted to create some visual content. Even though this material is hardly controversial, I feel it is important to set the stage for more advanced conversations.
I am getting better at understanding how the video editor works, so subsequent videos should be of higher quality. As I use free repurposed video content, I am forced to accept what’s available. In plenty of cases, more apt content is available from Adobe or iStock, but I can’t justify purchasing content at this time—especially given that the channel isn’t even monetised. Patience.
Follows is the transcript I used as a guide.
Free Will Scepticism. Determinism, Indeterminism & Luck
In this segment of free will scepticism, I talk about what free will is, why it’s important, and why it creates challenges that lead to a debate that’s lasted millennia.
Once we’ve established a foundation, we’ll look at the nemesis of free will that is determinism and its attendant nuances—indeterminism and luck.
As we unravel this problem, we’ll evaluate the relationship between these and whether these competing concepts can coexist.
In future segments, I intend to dig deeper into the question of free will as it relates to human agency and moral responsibility.
Defining Free Will
A good starting point is to define our terms. As we’ll discover, a fundamental challenge in the free will debate is that there is no common, agreed-upon definition, so let’s at least put some on the table.
A quick Google search yields these two definitions.
the apparent human ability to freely and consciously make choices that are not externally determined
the doctrine that such human freedom of choice is not illusory Let’s break down the first one by touching on the terms. This is an ability. No controversy here. Choices are the focus of this ability, and this ability is limited to humans. Not everyone limits the notion of free will to humans. In general, the reason free will gets so much attention is in relation to moral choice. As we don’t generally impose morality on non-human animals, we can live with this for now.
Note that this definition concedes that this is just an apparent human ability. This is because some people believe that if free will exists at all, it is just an illusion.
This ability. I’ll drop the ‘apparent’ qualifier so I don’t come across like an attorney and their ‘alleged’ perpetrator. This ability needs to be made freely and consciously. Free means without restriction, and consciously means with conscious intent. The definition further qualifies the free and conscious choice-making by stating that these choices are not externally determined. A person cannot be under a spell, hypnotised, or driven by unconscious intents. We’ll eventually see that disagreement centres around each of these terms, freely, conscious, and externally determined.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, an excellent online resource, defines free will as ‘a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives’. The ability to freely make choices is a common thread for all of these.
Another way to think about free will is to ask if you could have chosen otherwise. This is a thought experiment, and we’ll spend more time on this later. If you could turn back the clock and rerun the scenario, could you have chosen otherwise. As Jerry Coyne put it, ‘if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different’. Let’s work through a simple scenario with no moral implications. All of the events of your life have led up to this moment. A server asks, tea or coffee. You choose tea. Black or lemon—or cream? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s re-run the scenario. Everything leading up to this server asking for your order is the same—the same seat at the same table, in the same restaurant, the same server. Even the same jelly stain on the curtain and the same blue Buick parked outside your window. And the same parent trying to quiet her unruly child. You get the idea. Everything until now has played out the same. Last time you ordered tea. Do you possess the free will to order coffee this time around? We don’t need to answer this question quite yet. Keep whatever idea you have and we can compare it against the competing perspectives.
You might be thinking, so what? Who cares? Why is free will so important?
Free will is not just some abstract philosophical concept. Philosophy gets accused of pondering topics with no application in the real world. What is the sound of one hand clapping sort of fare.
Free will is at the centre of human agency and autonomy. The only reason it makes sense to praise or blame someone is because they could have done otherwise. We might praise a robot that was programmed to rescue people from fires. Even if we marvelled at the achievement of the robot, we’d more likely praise the programmer or the operator over the robot.
Likely more important than praise is blame. Humans’ propensity for blame could be its own series, so let’s just consider the notion idiomatically. If a person is remotely controlling a robot and steers it into your table, spilling your tea, you may be miffed at the robot, but your blame will be aimed at the one who’s holding the remote controller.
After blame comes punishment, or reward in the case of praise. This is another subdiscipline in its own right, so let’s continue.
Many people just presume that free will exists, so where are the challenges? First, the definition of free will is unstable, and it has drifted over time. Sometimes this has been innocent enough whilst at other times the definition has been amended to suit an argument. Sort of moving the goal posts. So, there’s no standard definition. This means that I can accept the notion under one definition and reject it under another. This hardly makes for fruitful debate.
Related to these first two is that for some people, the concept is reduced to something so narrow, so laser-focused, that it doesn’t seem to matter in the real world. Daniel Dennett has said that he’d be willing to concede that one doesn’t have free will except in matters of decisions in the order of ‘one cube of sugar or two in your tea’ or ‘taking the lavender blouse over the lilac one’. If you contend that this is the limiting boundary for free will, sure. You’ve got free will, for what it’s worth.
Still others say that free will is nothing more than an illusion. That a person perceives having free will is akin to perceiving that the sun rises in the East. We know this not to be true, and yet it appears to be true. We even commit this faulty observation to language, and it’s difficult not to envisage it differently.
The strongest position against free will comes from the Impossibilists, who hold unsurprisingly, the belief that free will is impossible given what we know about physical laws and the universe. Galen Strawson is likely the most notable of these people.
Contrary to free will is Determinism. Defined, Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will.
Ostensibly, this is a strong belief in cause and effect. That every event is caused by a prior event. The implication is that if one were to turn back time to the Big Bang and let history run again, everything down to the smallest atomic movement would run the same course of events. Absolutely nothing would change. This includes any thoughts and decisions. Unchanged.
Given this worldview, some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.
Without going too deep, Determinism can be a view adopted from a sectarian or secular perspective. The sectarian narrative is that God created the natural laws and set the universe in motion. The secular vantage is that there are physical laws, and the big bang set the universe in motion. These days, not many people hold this view. Indeterminism is the reason.
Indeterminism is another idea cursed with multiple definitions. The name originated as a counterargument to Determinism, hence the ‘in‘ prefix in the name. Not determinism. Indeterminism says that deliberate choice and actions are not determined by or predictable from antecedent causes, or that although there may be deterministic behaviours in the universe, not every event has a cause.
I’d like to qualify ‘not every event has a cause’ to ‘not every event has a known cause’ or some events have probabilistic causes, hence indeterminate. There is a bit of overlap here with the notion of luck, and we’ll get to that presently.
Our knowledge of physics and the advent of quantum mechanics has put hard determinism out of favour. As we saw, under strict determinism, if we turned back time, the future would always unfold identically. Think of this as a film strip or a video. No matter how many times you replay it the events manifest the same way. You can warn the camper not to go down into the cellar alone, but every time, she will. You can almost think of this as a sort of fate, although one must be careful to note that rewinding and replaying to the parts we’ve already seen does not mean that we can predict what we haven’t.
Quantum physics notes that there are many events that are stochastic or probabilistic. So even if you rewound and played it again, it would be like the girl flipping a coin before opening the cellar door—or I suppose the director. Heads, she goes down. Tails, she remains up, or she gets a friend.
The less strict version of Indeterminism doesn’t say that nothing is determined. Rather, that there are enough probabilistic events that we can’t claim to know what’s going to happen next.
Then there’s luck. Luck is also indeterministic, but it tries to clarify some cases. By definition, luck is success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions. If you flip a fair coin or throw a fair die or pull the handle on a slot machine, you may win or lose, but this outcome had nothing to do with you except that you were there at that moment. But there is more to it than this because a strict Determinist might claim that the outcome was determined by the state of molecules in history, that if you reran history, it would unfold the same way.
Apart from the luck that we tend to think of in gambling—good luck and bad—, there is the notion of moral luck, that is treating people as objects of moral judgement even when what they do depends on factors out of their control.
Not all luck is created equal, so let’s look at the various flavours of luck. Most of these were articulated by Thomas Nagel.
Resultant luck is the way things turn out. This notion evaluates luck in reverse. It involves what is known as survivorship bias.
I’ll share a true story. An acquaintance of mine got married and took a honeymoon in Jamaica. On holiday, the couple ate some seafood. His wife became sick and was hospitalised. There she died. One can imagine a story with a happier ending, where the couple took holiday and won a large cash prize in a casino, again a situation that could not have happened unless they had happened to be there. In the first case, one might say she had bad luck. In the second case, her luck was good.
Circumstantial luck is the circumstance one finds oneself in. You had no control over how you got to a certain place, but because you got there, you are faced with a choice. The gist of this is that the choice would not have been given, so you would never have made it.
Perhaps, expecting you to be out, a burglar enters your home one evening and you confront him and he shoots you (or you shoot him; it doesn’t matter). Maybe you were driving to someplace and another vehicle crashes into yours, totalling it. This is circumstantial. You had no intention of getting into an accident. Had you not been driving, this could not have happened. Perhaps, because of the accident, you won a lawsuit that yielded you a lot of money; perhaps, your back was irreparably damaged. Circumstantial luck.
Constitutive luck relates to who one is or their traits and dispositions. Think of this as character. Some people are ‘born’ with a persuasive disposition. Some are born to excel at football or maths. Some are The Rain Man. This is the genetic lottery. Perhaps you want to be a famous singer. Only you can’t sing. And maybe you can sing, but you lack charisma.
Billionaire Warren Buffett readily concedes that he would not likely be a billionaire if he happened to be born in India rather than the United States. This is constitutive luck.
Present luck is about luck at or around the moment of a putatively free action or decision point. This is a term used by Levy, borrowed from Mele. At any point in time, you are who you are and where you are as a matter of luck. You were born in a place at a time in history into a family. Heidegger called this ‘thrownness’. A person is thrown into this world and has to survive or not on their own terms. In any case, this family moulded you and schooled you with whatever constraints that they may have had: money, class, access, location. All the usual suspects. You interacted with the kids who were available. You got whatever teachers you got, and on and on. I think you get it. None of this is within your control. Examples I think of are musical acts, bands like The Beatles, Korn, U2, and so many others that are comprised entirely or largely of friends. They just happened to be born in the same general time and vicinity. I imagine if either of these were different, they wouldn’t have manifested the same way. Imagine Mozart being born in the 21st century. Perhaps he’d be a YouTube star. Who knows?
Causal luck is how one is determined by antecedent circumstances. This is the type of luck most closely aligned with free will and determinism. Simply put, it says that everything that preceded you is outside of your control as is everything leading up to what you have become. Causal luck is about the directional relationship between cause and effect.
For the record, some view causal luck as redundant to the combination of constitutive and circumstantial luck. I think that’s a fair charge, but let’s continue and see how these concepts play together.
At the highest level, there are two competing perspectives. Free will and determinism are either incompatible or compatible. Let’s begin with incompatibilism.
As it would seem, this view holds that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive. This holds for indeterminism as well. One cannot simultaneously hold the view that everything is determined, and that one can still manage to have free will in this determined universe.
Sam Harris famously wrote, ‘a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings’. Harris is a neuroscientist and free will sceptic, who believes that free will is an illusion. And I was determined to not let this image go to waste.
Finally, we have compatibilism, where the belief is that free will and determinism can coexist—and do. There are two basic reasons this might be possible: metaphysics or emergence.
I’ll let you know that I find the metaphysical argument to be weak tea. The argument is that maybe there is a god or something not bound by the constraints of our universe, who can put ideas into your brain, thus manipulating your decision. You were going to order tea, but this intervention led you to order coffee. I think that this perspective falls on its face right out of the gate. If some force is controlling you, the resulting actions may not have been predictably determined, but neither are they caused by you. In this scenario, this force might as well be the person controlling the robot to spill your tea.
Then there’s emergence. Quickly, emergence is the notion that one can combine two or more elements with the outcome being a substance with different ‘emergent’ properties. An example most people are familiar with is the combining of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water. Two Hs plus an O creates H20. Hydrogen and Oxygen are both gasses, but water is a liquid with a further emergent property of being wet.
The argument is that this free will occurs independently of all the inputs and processes. If this were true, then free will and determinism could coexist. There is no evidence of this, and I’ll just leave it here. I intend to add to this by reviewing articles for and against free will and the compatibilist position.
Do you believe you have free will? If so, why. Are you a determinist or an indeterminist? Are you a compatibilist or an incompatibilist?
Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?
Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of controlfrom the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.
In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances.
So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.
I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.
Without worrying about free will, here’s a quick look at determinism and indeterminism.
Determinism effectively says that whatever happens in a causal chain results from what has happened before. If we could turn back time, the events would unfold identically.
In a deterministic universe, borrowing from Peter van Inwagen’s example, if Sally has to choose between Julliard and Harvard, if she ‘chooses’ Harvard, the first time, and subsequent instance would see her making the same choice.
Indeterminism effectively says, that whatever happens in a causal chain results from what has happened before. However, random events could alter the outcome. If we could turn back time, although events could unfold identically, they don’t have to.
In an indeterministic universe, borrowing again from Peter van Inwagen’s example, if Sally has to choose between Julliard and Harvard, if she ‘chooses’ Harvard, the first time, a subsequent instance might see her choosing Harvard again, but she might also choose Julliard. Since we have not entered free will into the arena, her choice was indeterminate but based on something entirely outside of her control. At some point, RNG entered the picture and tossed a 1 instead of a 0 thereby sealing her fate, as it were.
Again, absent the notion of free will, perhaps Sally was particularly inspired by a music teacher or a musician. Perhaps she just watched the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial and was compelled to fight for justice. Perhaps she was hungry or full. Perhaps she was stuck in traffic. Perhaps she was deciding during shark week.
Groundhog Day and Butterfly Effect
Another popular trope is that if we could rewind time, we could either effect change in the rerun through learning or just altering the past. We’ve seen this played out in movies like Groundhog Day, Butterfly Effect, the Back to the Future series, and so on. Time travel stories present several thought experiments that clearly play on the concept that we do have power over our environment. We’ll save this narrative for another day.
Abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose are on quick repeat in the latest news cycles as the SCOTUS has signalled that it wished to remove a woman’s right to choose. For most of us, it’s plainly obvious that this is codifying religious moral doctrine into law—Judeo-Christian beliefs to be more precise. This Christian belief is predicated on the notion that life is sacred.
In the West or at least in the United States citizens are inundated with this religious tripe, literally from infancy. It’s presented as sacrosanct, but this is not a universal belief.
One of my favourite stories in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years was the recounting of French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s anecdotal observation that a man saved from drowning proceeded to ask his rescuer for remuneration for having saved his life.
As Graeber puts it, a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. One French missionary working in Central Africa insisted that such things happened to him on a regular basis:
You save a person’s life, and you must expect to receive a visit from him before long; you are now under an obligation to him, and you will not get rid of him except by giving him presents.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in an attempt to prove that “natives” operated with an entirely different form of logic, compiled a list of similar stories: for instance, of a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife.
The interesting thing for me is the way this flips the sanctity of life narrative on its head. As Westerners, it is not only beat into our heads—whether secular or sectarian—, and this sanctity becomes the crux of the pro-life [sic] anti-abortion argument. But this sanctity is just another human construct. Part of the ‘be fruitful, go forth and multiply’ logic. This is arguably just more human hubris.
Of course, this is a slippery slope. Start undermining this narrative, and you start to see eugenic apologists coming out of the woodwork. In fact, we aren’t really that far removed from this notion. Whenever we encounter common enemies, one of the first tactics is to vilify and dehumanise them, so as to soothe the psyche, making it justify killing these subhuman species. In the end, the human mind is very facile.
Self and identity are cognitive heuristic constructions that allow us to make sense of the world and provide continuity in the same way we create constellations from the situation of stars, imagining Ursa Major, the little dipper, or something else. The self and identity are essentially expressions of apophenia.
Consider this thought experiment about responsibility. Rob decides to rob a bank. He spends weeks casing the target location. He makes elaborate plans, drawing maps. and noting routines and schedules. He gets a gun, and one day he follows through on his plans, and he successfully robs the bank, escaping with a large sum of money in a box with the name of the bank printed on it. Rob is not a seasoned criminal, and so he leaves much incriminating evidence at the scene. To make it even more obvious, he drops his wallet at the scene of the crime containing his driver’s licence with fingerprints and DNA on the licence and other contents of his wallet. He leaves prints and DNA on the counter where he waited for the money. This wallet even contains a handwritten checklist of steps to take to rob this bank—the address of the bank, the time and date. All of this left no doubt about who robbed the bank.
Using this evidence, the police show up at Rob’s apartment to arrest him. They knock on the door and identify themselves as law enforcement officers. Rob opens the door and invites them in. All of the purloined money is still in the box with the name of the bank printed on it. It’s on a table in plain sight next to the gun he used. All of his maps, plans and, surveillance notes are in the room, too. They read him his rights and arrest him. Things aren’t looking good for Rob.
Before I continue this narrative, ask yourself is Rob responsible for robbing the bank? Let’s ignore the question of whether Rob has agency. For this example, I am willing to ignore my contention that no one has or can have agency. Besides, the court will continue to presume agency long after it’s been determined that it is impossible because agency is a necessary ingredient to law and jurisprudence.
Is Rob responsible? Should he be convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to incarceration? Let’s make it even easier. This isn’t Rob’s first offence. In fact, he’s been in prison before for some other crimes he committed. He’s no first-time offender. Why do you think that he’s responsible? More importantly, why should he be convicted and sentenced? What should his sentence be?
Consider that the money has been recovered, no one was injured, and Rob didn’t resist arrest. At first glance, we might consider both restorative and retributive justice. I’ve purposely made it easy to ignore restorative justice as all the money was recovered. This leaves us with retributive justice. What should happen to Rob? What would you do if you were the judge? Why? Hold that thought.
Let’s continue the narrative. All of the above happened, but I left out some details. Because of course I did. After the heist, Rob returned home and he lost his balance and hit his head rendering him an amnesiac—diagnosed with permanent retrograde and dissociative amnesia. Because of the retrograde amnesia, Rob can’t remember anything prior to hitting his head. Because of the dissociation, Rob has no recollection of anything about himself, not even his name. In fact, he now only responds to the name Ash. (This is where I debate whether to have Rob experience a gender-identity swap, but I convince myself to slow my roll and focus on one thought experiment at a time.)
To make this as obvious as I can consider, Ash has no recollection of Rob, robbing the bank, or anything about Rob. Ash doesn’t know Rob’s friends or family. Ostensibly Ash is a different person inhabiting former-Rob’s body. To make it even easier, Ash is not feigning this condition. So, let’s not try to use that as an out when I ask you to reconsider responsibility.
If my experience serves as a guide, if I asked you about your response to whether Rob was responsible and what his sentence should be, you would be committed to your same response and for the same reasons, so I won’t ask again.
What I ask now is if Ash is responsible and what his sentence should be. Keep in mind that we should be able to ignore the restorative element and focus on the retributive aspect. What should happen to Ash? What would you do if you were the judge? Whether your response has changed or remained the same, why would you judge Ash this way?
Here are some considerations:
Retributive justice might serve as a lesson to other would-be offenders.
The public may not believe the amnesia excuse—even though you, as judge, are convinced thoroughly.
Ash does not believe he committed the crime and does not comprehend the charges.
Ash was surprised to discover the money and gun and was pondering how it got there and what to do with it when the police arrived at his apartment.
If released, Ash would not commit a crime in the future. (My thought experiment, my rules; the point being that Ash was no threat to society.)
From my perspective, Ash is a different person. Sentencing Ash is ostensibly the same as sentencing any person arbitrarily.
The purpose of this experiment is to exaggerate the concept of multiple selves. Some have argued that there is no self; there is just a constructed narrative stitching discrete selves together to create a continuous flow of self-ness.
I’m interested in hearing what you think. Is Ash responsible for Rob’s action, and why or why not? Let me know.
I just published a video on YouTube—just over 7 minutes long. I’ll be publishing the audio as a podcast and will share the script here as well.
Human Agency is an illusion. This is the end of the story. If you listen for a while, you’ll hear as I rewind and pull back the curtains.
Let’s get started.
Human Agency is an illusion.
Think of life as a motion picture that’s already been filmed. The ending is already known. The script has been written and performed by actors already chosen and hired.
I like this visual, but it’s not quite right. The end is not known in the same sense as that of the movie. It’s just as inevitable, just unknown.
Some might prefer to use the metaphor of cascading dominos. And this might even play better into the illusion. Some unforeseen force might intervene and stop the otherwise inevitable. But even this is beyond our control. Like an action-adventure story, we’re strapped into a runaway train and just along for the ride. This train might someday stop, but we’ll have had nothing to do with it. Enough of metaphors. What am I saying? Why am I saying it? And what does it mean?
Allow me to set up the scene. From there, I’ll elaborate.
For millennia, there’s been a debate over free will and determinism. These terms have been defined in different ways in an attempt to sway the argument for or against, one way or another. It turns out that for the human agency illusion, it doesn’t much matter, but it might still help to set the stage, so let’s establish some foundation. I like to consider free will and determinism as bookends.
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. 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. 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.
And as Galen Strawson puts it,
You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
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.
But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
So there you have it. I hope you found this cursory treatment interesting and informative if not provocative.
I’m interested in hearing what you think. Do you think you have agency? Do we have free will, or is everything determined at the start? I didn’t even mention religion. Does that throw a spanner in the works? Let me know.
The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.
As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.
Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.
By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.
In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.
The Appointment in Samarra*
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.
A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted
Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a
This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.
Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.
But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.
So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.
* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)