Sunday, May 09, 2004

Indeterminist Innuendo

Now to tie up a few loose ends from my previous free will post. I said there that indeterminism seemed to be an obstacle to freedom, but Robert Kane has an argument to suggest that this is not always so. Put simply:

We hold people responsible for their actions, even if luck might have (but didn't) thwart their intention. To adapt an example Patrick offered in class, suppose you flip a coin and decide to murder someone if it lands on heads. Heads it is, so you commit murder. Now we surely think it absurd for the murderer to argue "it's not my fault, it might have landed tails! It was just a matter of luck!". We consider intentional action to be free action, despite indeterminancy (so long as it happens to succeed).

But now consider a person torn between two possible choices. Kane argues that we should consider both options as being intentions of the agent. The intentions are conflicting, so only one of them can win out. But no matter which one it is, we should hold the agent responsible, just like we did the murderer in the above example, even if it's indeterminate ("just a matter of luck") which of the agent's intentions gets realised.

I think it's a good argument (any flaws here are probably due to mistakes in my summary, rather than Kane's original argument), and it shows that freedom is compatible with indeterminancy as well as determinancy. However, it does not show as much as Kane had hoped for. Rather than supporting a libertarian conception of free will, I think it just further reinforces the compatibalist conception - at least, as I previously characterised those positions in terms of "ultimate" and "proximate" causes.

Kane's view centres on the idea of a "self-forming action" (SFA). An SFA is a rare event where an agent's choice shapes their future character (desires, values, etc), and furthermore, this choice is a truly indeterminate one (because of quantum fluctuations in your brain, say). Later actions may be determined by these desires, that's fine by Kane. The point is that your desires themselves aren't fully determined by events before you were born.

Woop-de-doo. Here's the problem: your desires weren't caused by YOU either! Being caused indeterminately doesn't make them any more free than they otherwise would be. The above argument shows that we can still call the agent responsible for the results of the SFA, but it doesn't show that he's any more responsible than he would be if it were all pre-determined. We don't have any more control over the SFA than over all our other (determined) actions. So Kane's indeterminist freedom has no relevant differences from (and thus is no more 'free' than) the compatibalist conception. All Kane has done is extend compatibalism so that freedom is compatible with both determinism and (some small degree of) indeterminism.

As mentioned in my previous free will post, what the Libertarian requires (if he wants something special) is not indeterminate causation, but transcendent causation. And that's just crazy talk.

Update: The Garden of Forking Paths has more on libertarian views that actually support compatibilism.


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