Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Red Pill: Choosing Determinism

[Update: Shifted to front from 8 Aug.]

Are individuals free to make their own choices in life, or is everything that happens pre-determined? Perhaps the answer is “both”. Perhaps we’re mistaken to assume that free will and determinism are in conflict.

There’s a clear sense in which determinism enables rather than opposes freedom. Suppose you’re driving up to a red light and you want to brake, but some random indeterminacy causes you to instead step on the gas. Does that sound like a free action to you? I would actually feel much more free if I knew for sure that my actions were reliably caused (determined) by my preferences. Indeterminism doesn’t give us free will; it robs us of the ability to act on our choices.

We should take care not to confuse determinism with fatalism. Both guarantee that the future is settled – there is some fact of the matter about how things are going to turn out - but only fatalism robs us of our causal powers. It implies that the fated event would occur no matter what we did, that our actions make no difference. Determinism is not nearly so bad. It says that some event is going to happen, but only because we are going to make it happen! If we had chosen differently (perhaps because the past had also been different, and so caused us to have slightly different goals), then the future would have turned out differently too. Our actions have a huge impact: they are what cause the future to turn out as it will!

So, contrary to popular opinion, causal determinism is nothing to worry about. It is entirely compatible with our actions being caused by our own character and deliberative processes, and that – I suggest – is the sort of freedom that really matters.

Some want to further demand that our mental states be themselves uncaused, so that individuals are the ultimate causes of their actions. But this is not plausible. Surely who we are as individuals is hugely affected by external factors. You don’t get to choose your personality. Your character and values will have been influenced by the interaction of your genetic makeup and your upbringing. Your beliefs and skills will depend upon what you have been taught by others. In short: we didn’t come from nowhere.

Indeed, the very notion of pure self-creation is incoherent. Suppose you got to choose your own personality. On what basis could you make such a choice? You must base it on some prior preferences that you have. But did you ever get to choose those preferences? If so, on what basis was that choice made? We must eventually reach some foundational standards of evaluation (preferences) that you never chose to have. So “pure” freedom is impossible. Unless we want free will to be an impossible pipe dream, we’d best understand it in the previous, more modest, sense, which is consistent with determinism. What do you think? (Hopefully, reading this will cause you to make the right choice!)


  1. I am a semi-determinist. I don't believe the future is settled, but that there are certain probabilities, some quite high, others not so.

    >So, contrary to popular opinion, causal determinism is nothing to worry about. It is entirely compatible with our actions being caused by our own character and deliberative processes, and that – I suggest – is the sort of freedom that really matters.<

    Hmmm... isn't that what the Christians say when you tell them that God knowing the future is incompatible with our free choice (the kind of choice we can be held responsible for)?

    Anyways, this is all just academic games. The questions that matter are these: Are we morally responsible for what we do? Yes.
    Are there degrees of responsibility in everything we do? Yes. Next!

    I just wish professional philosophers would spend more time on practical issues and less on mind games like this one.

  2. and here's the problem I have with compatibilism: if our preferences cause our actions and our preferences are caused, then isn't that reducible to fatalism? We can't control our preferences, our actions (to anthromorphize) can't function without our preferences, so we can't control our actions.

    How is this "the sort of freedom that really matters?" If I'm interested in determining whether it is just to punish someone for doing a wrongful act, what difference does it make whether I subscribe to fatalism and hold that such punishment would not be just because the poor guy did not choose his actions, or I subscribe to determinism and similarly hold that the punishment would not be just because the poor guy did not choose the process of reasoning that led to his actions?

  3. >If I'm interested in determining whether it is just to punish someone for doing a wrongful act,<

    How about just saying "it's never just to abuse someone" period, no matter what they have done? Then you won't have to spend the time of your life worrying about determinism and fatalism. Ugh. :-)

  4. Paul, my post "destiny and determinism" goes into more detail on the difference between fatalism and determinism. But as I tried to explain in the present post, the difference is primarily counterfactual. Determinism, but not fatalism, implies that the world would have turned out differently if we had acted differently. (It just so happens that the past guarantees that we actually won't act differently.) The difference is subtle, but, I think, important.

    "the punishment would not be just because the poor guy did not choose the process of reasoning that led to his actions?"

    Compatibilists simply deny that moral responsibility requires ultimate responsibility. What matters is who we are, not how we came to be. The fact that our preferences and reasoning-processes have external causes doesn't make them any less ours. Compatibilist freedom merely requires that our actions stem from our own character and deliberations. Whether those in turn are caused by something else simply doesn't matter.

  5. I'm aware of the difference between determinism and fatalism, I just think that the compatabilists assertion that one has freedom without uncausedness -- your "it just so happens" -- gobbles it up for all useful purposes. I think Searle put it best (I forget where) when he declared that compatibilists simply redefine "freedom."

    In fact, I've just realized how horribly futile it is to try and conduct an argument about compatibilism in a blog comment field... can I just appeal to Searle's authority (such as it is) and run away?

    Well, one further remark. The "hypothetical could" doesn't serve one function that we think our concept of freedom ought to function: the function of value-conferral. The example in yet another of your free will posts of the suicidal driver highlights that. What meaning is conferred on my choice not to drive into traffic? Well, I know that I've acted in accordance with my values, but that is not comforting to me, because I could not act otherwise. I get no experience of having made a choice between alternatives to have acted in accordance with my values. I simply get the experience of being compelled by a certain mental state to do a certain act.

    Actually, one more further remark, then back to work. If our actions are determined by our mental states, it would follow that we must have some way to rank and weight the various mental state influences that could lead to an action. For example, I desire to type a bunch of incoherent and/or obscene gibberish in this comment box as a Dostoevesky-esque demonstration that I can defy the commands of rationality, but I also desire to be a sane-appearing person whose arguments are taken seriously. Those two desires would rationally lead to opposite action.

    The fact that I have followed the second desire rather than the first seems to imply one of two possibilities. Either (a) I've made an uncaused choice of which desire to permit to motivate my action, or (b) one of the desires is stronger in some fashion than the other. (a) would be the incompatibilist libertarian position, while (b) would be the compatibilist position as I "understand" them. The problem with (b) is that it implies a weighting mechanism that nobody really experiences. I don't experience sounding sane as a stronger desire than demonstrating my point through ludicrous gibberish -- I don't weight costs and benefits in the economic sense, because there are no real costs and benefits to me here -- I simply choose between them.

  6. Paul,

    I guess I should just go read Searle, but I wonder what the original definition of freedom is that the compatiblist is diverging from.
    Something that's completely uncaused isn't freedom under any 'ordinary' sense.
    Postulating 'agent causation,' if that can even be given a substantive definition, doesn't help. The same dilemma is just reiterated within the 'agent causal' context - did the agent choose to cause the event because of some determining reason or did it chose randomly?
    So what's the other option for a 'standard' definition of freedom that differs from the compatiblist one?

  7. Why do the options for agent causation have to be (a) itself caused or (b) randomly?

    [[WARNING: we're getting WAY beyond the area where this philosophically-interested lawyer has even begun to study the literature, so please ignore any total nonsense that may spew from my electronic mouth]]

    It seems just as plausible to me to suggest that there can be a non-determined causal agent in the mind which is still non-random, i.e. our cognitive process is perhaps bounded by certain possibilities (the language we speak, the training we have etc.) and hence non-random, but within that bounded range, could choose any of the available possibilities. (I'm not sure there even needs to be a boundedness to get there, but the argument is easier for me to make [uh, gesture at] in my current distracted state if I throw that in.)

    Why should that sort of bounded nonrandom indeterminacy be so unusual? Not to trot out any old bad analogies or anything, but isn't that much like the way that quantum particles operate? Indeterminate, but only indeterminate so far, because probabilistic, I mean. We can determine the probability of a specific particle being somewhere, but we can't determine the fact thereof. The same might be said of human choice. We can determine the probability (i.e. with social psychology) of a particular human driving his or her car into oncoming traffic, but we can not determine whether that individual human actually will or will not do so.

    What one gains from the quantum mechanical point is not, I think, some kind of direct relationship between quantum mechanics and the brain (i.e. "thinking is caused by indeterminate quarks!") but real evidence for the possibility that "things" of any sort to have scientific, non-superstitious, existence and yet not be determined.

    Is that "random?" Maybe. Is there a rigorous definition of "random" beyond the question-begging "not determined?"

    In terms of things being uncaused generally, and again going way beyond anything I've even peeked into any literature about, what about cosmology? Can the "big bang" be said to be an uncaused event? If not, can the thing that caused the "big bang" be an uncaused event? Etc. etc. The question for the big bang seems to be identical to the question for human choice, with the additional perk that if the big bang was random and if everything else was caused by the big bang, everything we do is reducible to randomness anyway, no?

  8. That's a nice point by Derek.

    Paul, I don't see why (b) necessarily has any phenomenological implications. Perhaps the desire has greater causal strength at some sub-conscious level of processing. Cognitive science has shown us that, in general, introspection is not a very reliable indicator of how our minds actually work.

  9. Paul, in response to your latest comment, I'll just point to yet another of my old free will posts, which explains why I don't think indeterminacy is any help here.

  10. re: your indeterminacy post, pah. I think your coup de grace "but it doesn't show that he's any more responsible than he would be if it were all pre-determined" is far from obvious.

    Let me make two points, the first of which I'm not sure makes sense, so feel free to ignore it, but I think the second one does.

    1. Non-sense making point:
    First of all, indeterminacy is not necessarily the same as randomness. Randomness implies a total absence of cause, while indeterminacy could include partial cause perhaps. For example, going back to all the quantum stuff, if I take my laptop and move it across the room, I've partially determined the nature of the quantum particles that make up its matter: they're constrained by the bounds of the field that we call a laptop.

    Similarly, we might say that mental states are constrained by those things that constitute our history, desires etc., but at the same time can move freely within those constraints. (Sort of like the existentialist notion of the situated subject.)

    Might this combine the best of both worlds, freedom-wise? It would retain the benefits of the kind of "freedom" that compatabilists like, making choices to act in accordance with one's mental states, and at the same time be unbound to specific acts, because of the inability to pin down a specific choice beforehand.

    2. Sense-making point:
    Moreover, I see a big problem in your argument in response to Kane (who I've never read). You proclaim that "Here's the problem: your desires weren't caused by YOU either ... it doesn't show that he's any more responsible than he would be if it were all pre-determined."

    That strikes me as taking a totally contestable position on the identity question. Where are you placing the locus of identity? Why couldn't identity be made up by those SFAs?

    In other words, the responsible "I" might be the thing that is engaging in SFAs. That makes some intuitive sense because only that "I" has no other source of causation to appeal to. If we define "responsibility" as "absence of ability to attribute causation [blame] to someone/thing else," then the SFA is self-responsible, because by its indeterminate nature it has no external cause to point to.

    And now I'm so far out of my depth it's not even funny. The people who know what they're talking about are probably having entirely non-free paryoxyms of laughter reading this, and/or committing suicide.

  11. That's not a bad argument, though I think it ultimately fails.

    In an SFA, it is possible for either one of two events to result. But you don't have any control over which of these occurs. It's just random, depending upon which way the quantum fluctuations go. That's not something you get to decide for yourself.

    Freedom is about having the power to control your own decisions and actions. The mere fact that there are two possible results rather than just one, does not itself imply that you have any more control over it.

    (If a killer flips a coin to decide whether to shoot you in the head or heart, that doesn't make you any more free than if he simply determined to shoot you in the head regardless.)

    But that's what SFA's are like. They're (metaphorical) coin-flips which end up determining our personalities. The mere fact that it's indeterminate beforehand which way the coin will fall, doesn't give us any more control over it.

    That's why Kane's theory doesn't give us any more freedom than standard compatibilism does.

    What you really need is pure self-creation: where you get to decide your own character (rather than letting quantum indeterminacies decide it for you). But that notion is incoherent, as my main post showed.

    So, in the end, you really can't do better than compatibilism.

  12. Paul,

    Let me sort of bypass your exchange with Richard, though my remarks aren't unrelated. (Richard: I haven't read your other post, but I share your evaluation of Kane's theory).
    You postulate a sort of best case scenario for incompatiblist freedom: an indeterminate choice that is nonethless bounded by prior causes. It's not completely random because the actual options open in the choice are determined by facts about me, but it's not completely determined because it is random which of the remaining possibilities will be actualized.
    The problem is this: If one accepts your argument against the compatiblist notion of freedom (that caused choices don't count), then it's hard to see why the boundaries on the indeterminacy matter. They are, after all, just the effects of prior causes that we didn't control. But if the boundaries don't add anything, then the bounded-indeterminacy is no better than the simple randomness in giving us freedom.
    The only other possibility is that there's some sort of 'synergy' that comes in, making this combination of determinacy and randomness a genuine account of freedom that isn't reducible to either of its parts. I just don't see how. (If it did, wouldn't that mean that certain quantum systems have the same robust 'free will' as we attribute to ourselves?)

  13. I think an endorsement of this "synergy" answers both Richard and Derek's points, without being totally implausible. Why can't free will be an irreducible emergent property of the conjunction between indeterminate physical states (either because the relevant physical correlate is at the quantum level, or because the system is nonlinear and complex maybe, or because of some other reason) in the nervous system and prior physical states of that same nervous system in the form of stored desires, experiences, etc.?

    I don't think that necessarily requires ascribing free will to atoms/quantum structures/whatever because those things don't have the same kinds of bounds that we do. They have physical bounds, like the brain, but they don't have experiental bounds. (Am I veering into dualism here?!) In other words, there's no reason to suggest that my laptop retains any kind of "memory" of the effect of being on my desk when I move it to my bed, the data from that experience just isn't stored. By contrast, the data from the experience of going to school is indeed stored in my brain and makes up the experential bounds of the indeterminate mind.

    (Alternatively, I suppose we can just ascribe "free will" in the sense of "bounded indeterminacy" to the atoms and say "but who cares?" since they have neither muscles to manifest their free will in action nor sense organs to experience data.)

    Richard: I don't think your last remark answers my second point, which is that the SFA could be understood as closer to pure self-creation than the socially-formed desires if we locate identity in that feature of ourselves that is indeterminate. I'm not wholly satisfied with that argument because it seems a bit tautological (insofar as it defines identity as that which is undetermined/free), but then so does compatibilism (which defines freedom as that which we have).

  14. Why should it matter whether the bounding causes are (partially) "experiential" or not?
    The obvious answer is this: It matters because our notion of our own personal identity is intimately tied up with our experiences, our memories, our desires, etc. That's why we claim them as "ours" instead of as external things that happen to us.

    Our concept of quantum systems, in contrast, doesn't involve any such notion of personal identity.

    But to say that seems already to discard your objection to compatiblism. That objection rests on the assumption that if I'm not the 'ultimate' cause of my beliefs and desires then those things aren't 'mine' in the sense important for freedom. Appeal to the 'experiential' nature of the boundaries suggests that what matters for freedom is not that I'm the ultimate cause of those boundaries but that I identify with the cause of those boundaries.
    (of course if you want to identify the true self in the indeterminacy, why do you need the boundaries?)

    "Why can't free will be an irreducible emergent property of the conjunction between indeterminate physical states ... and prior physical states...?

    I just don't see why we should believe it. I am ultimately causally responsible neither for the choice parameters nor for the selection among those parameters. But I am ultimately causally responsible for the outcome - an outcome over which I had no control. Or is it that I'm responsible for this conjunction of factors without being responsible for either conjunct?

    In any case, I still don't think it answers my initial question: what is the concept of freedom we're working with here?
    Is the emergence account just the definition of freedom? If so, I don't think it has any claim than to be the 'standard' definition against which the compatiblist is said to redefine.

  15. I don't know that there's a standard definition of freedom that we can pin down. My assertion is more modest: I suggest that whatever a standard definition of freedom is, it does not include mental states that are entirely determined. Whether the definition of freedom that results is totally indeterminate (random), boundedly indeterminate (my gloss on the quantum stuff) or something else is largely indifferent to me. I prefer bounded indeterminacy only to the extent that it avoids the "well, aren't I unfree if everything I do is random" objection, as well as because it seems more consistent with the information given to us by physics.

    But I don't see how we can determine that either the compatabilist definition of freedom (acts taken in accordance with one's determined mental states, or, alternately stated, acts that could have been otherwise but for the determined mental state influence) or my definition of freedom (acts taken in accordance with undetermined mental states, or, alternately stated, acts that could have been otherwise period with the only condition that they were done as a consequence of a mental state that itself could have been otherwise) can be said to have primacy. I don't know what reason we'd have to give either such primacy, apart from an appeal to intuition, and if we wanted to appeal to intuition, perhaps this is the space for empirical work. (Can you see it? "Do you believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? ... Thank you. Who do you support for the Senate? ... Thank you. Do you believe that a free mental state would have to be less than completely determined?")

    My intuitive sense is that the compatibilist argument resembles something akin to an argument that Lucy and Charlie Brown might have:

    LUCY: Hey Charlie, come kick this football!
    CHARLIE: Why should I? You’ll just take it away.
    LUCY: Yes, that’s true, but you’ll get to run up to it and swing your foot and think you’re going to kick it. And isn’t that really the same as kicking it?
    CHARLIE: No, I want to actually kick the football.
    LUCY: No you don’t.

    That seems identical with the contention of the compatibilists. "I want to be free." "You are free." "But aren't my mental states out of my control?" "Yes, but who wants to be in control of their mental states anyway?" (I fully expect this objection to show up in a publication somewhere as "Gowder's Football" now...)

    As for your argument that I've thrown aside that very objection by equating the distinction between free will in humans and indeterminacy in particles to the experience of choice-making, I have two answers:

    1) Even if that were true, I don't think compatibilism is consistent with the experience of choice-making, because if one accepts compatibilism, one can no longer honestly have the experience of choice making. As I write out this argument, if I believe that "I" generate the argument my experience of the writing is qualititatively different from if I believe that the fact that I am writing this is wholly determined. In the latter case, I stop caring (or so I believe I would -- the mechanism of creating this hypothetical situation and simulating the experience is probably another question entirely, since how can I know what I would feel if I accepted something I don't accept! Is that a variant of the intentionality problem? I'm not sure.).

    2) Besides, it's not true. I distinguished humans and particles on the basis that humans are in effect more (although incompletely) determined than particles, because particle indeterminacy is bounded only by their position in ordinary 3 dimensional space [afaik...] while human indeterminacy is bounded by that plus their historical experiences (their past positions in space perhaps). That's the sense I used the word "experiental" in -- it was probably a poorly chosen word. (This is where I fall back on my non-philosopher license :-) )

    As for the basic skepticism about the emergent property argument, why is it so implausible that we could be said to be the ultimate cause of a conjunction of two things, one externally caused and one uncaused? It seems like that's the only coherent way to describe such a conjunction, because it would have the qualities both of being governed by the same things that we understand to govern people and at the same time incompletely governed. If it's caused, but not completely caused by external events, it must be self-caused. (Wow, I've descended into incoherence I think. So, you guys know any good philosophy grad programs that'll take in a mad lawyer with semi-stale references to teach him the language to coherently make these arguments?)

  16. Oh, one other objection to any theory that denies the experience of uncausedness -- and I don't know the first thing about epistemology, so my apologies if this is a patently stupid point that got refuted by Hume in his sleep or something:

    Given that our sense data and our experience of uncausedness arise via the same mechanism (mental processes), why should we accept the first but not the second? Of course, we can't throw out sense data: we need to accept our sense data to do any science at all (if only to read the instruments), and if we throw out science we have no reason not to believe in Descartes' ghost... but why do we privilege the sense-data experience over the free-agency experience?

  17. "If it's caused, but not completely caused by external events, it must be self-caused."

    You've really lost me here. I think this is your position: Something that is caused by my mental states is not caused by me (in the relevant sense) since my mental states are not ultimately caused by me. Something that is random is not caused by me because it's not caused by anything at all.
    While bounded indeterminate events are partially caused by things outside of my control, they are not completely determined by those things. So they must be caused by me because...

    The only way I can think to finish that sentence is: 'because any event that happens must have a complete cause, and if things outside my control only provide a partial cause of the event, something in my control must be the rest of the cause.'

    But of course that's not right, since it denies that the bounded choice is indeterminate.

    "Yes, but who wants to be in control of their mental states anyway?"

    But the compatiblist isn't (or shouldn't be) asking this question. The problem with your Charlie Brown analogy is that "actually kicking the football" is a coherent concept; it's not clear that "noncompatiblist free will" is. It makes sense to complain that trying to kick the football isn't as good as actually kicking the football. I'm not sure it makes sense to complain that compatiblist free will isn't as good as genuine freedom, because I'm not sure the latter refers to any definite concept at all.

  18. I'll answer your points backwards.

    2. But compatibilists DO ask that exact question "who really wants to be in control of their mental states?" Richard asked that question here, I'm given to understand Dennett himself asked it in Elbow Room (or so I take it from various reviews, papers., etc. -- I have the actual book on order right now). Merely by suggesting that there's a kind of freedom we don't want (as this guy did too [the end of that paper is what inspired my Football]), those compatibilists who make that argument concede the coherence of the concept.

    Nonetheless, I'll try and defend it...

    1. I've written and deleted 3 entirely separate answers to this point (why is it us that's causing them) because none are entirely satisfactory. I still think it comes down to the identity problem. If the self is that which arises spontaneously from the conjunction of physical states that store past experiences and indeterminate [somethings] then in a circular sort of sense we can say that choices are caused by the self. In perhaps less incoherent terms, if the self itself is an emergent property of the physical determinate and the physical indeterminate, then even though that self isn't itself determined, it can act as a determining (causative) agent for something else.

    I don't think that denies that the bounded choice is indeterminate, it simply says that the indeterminacy appears in the construction of the self, and then that self makes the decision based on causal factors.

    I'm really modifying my previous position here (which is ok, since I'm making this argument up as I go along anyway!): since I'm not sure the idea that the indeterminacy directly manifests in choice-making is tenable for the reasons given above, I'm moving it to identity formation: if the self is formed from (a) our history and (b) an X factor which is indeterminate, then that self, which causes actions in the world, can make choices which are undetermined. They're determined by the desires and so forth like Dennett et al say, but the desires aren't themselves completely determined because there's this indeterminate factor that goes into making them, be that irreducible complexity/chaos, quantum stuff, a dualist ghost or whatever.

  19. Um, Paul, I don't think I've ever asked "who really wants to be in control of their mental states?" I don't see such a question anywhere in the old post you link to. It's my position (as argued above) that the notion of pure self-creation is incoherent. (You might as well ask "who wants to own a square circle?")

    Like I keep saying, we have no more control over indeterminate external causes than we do determinate ones. So it just seems to me that you're trying to redefine "self-caused" to mean something entirely different. You talk about "identity formation", but I see no reason whatsoever to prefer indeterminate external formation to determinate external formation. Either way, our identity is formed by forces over which we have no control whatsoever. The indeterminist is in no better position here. That's why I think the only plausible position is to say that what matters is that our actions are caused by our self. The further question of how the self was formed makes no difference.

  20. But Richard, how can the notion of pure self-creation be incoherent? Take the universe ("please"). Assuming athiesm for the moment, the universe, as a cosmological matter, had to be purely self created. The "big bang" necessarily is an example of spontaneous self-creation (since there would be no entities or time "beforehand" to do the creating).

    I don't necessarily maintain that human choice arises in an analagous fashion to the universe itself (unless we want to descend into pan-psychism), but my point is that self-creation necessarily must be a coherent concept.

  21. To clarify my last comment: if all matter and energy was coalesced into a single point at the start of time, whatever force caused the big bang must have been purely internal. No prior cause could have done it, because there was no prior time. No external cause could have done it, because there was no mass or energy in the "outside," even assuming there was an "outside." It would be a purely spontaneous event.

    I see no reason to believe that a similar purely internal causative force can't exist in the brain. I'm assigning that force to the conjunction between history and indeterminacy because those are things that we know are or may be relevant to brain functioning. But what it comes down to is a non-external cause.

    Could we call that "random?" I have no idea. Could we call the big bang random?

  22. Supposing that it really is possible for something to come from nothing (which atheists are not necessarily committed to in any case), the appropriate description of this is that the new entity was un-caused, not self-caused.

    This is particularly clear in the case of human action: if our behaviour is determined by nothing at all (i.e. indeterminate), then nothing has control over it, and so, in particular, we do not have control over it. You're trying to reason from "X had no cause" to "X had a cause: namely, X itself." That just doesn't work.

    Anyway, note that my incoherency argument is particularly about agent self-creation (not object self-causation in general). Here it is again:

    "Suppose you got to choose your own personality. On what basis could you make such a choice? You must base it on some prior preferences that you have. But did you ever get to choose those preferences? If so, on what basis was that choice made? We must eventually reach some foundational standards of evaluation (preferences) that you never chose to have. So “pure” freedom is impossible."

  23. Paul,

    The following case seems to meet your criterion of genuine freedom:

    Due to causes outside of my control (but including my own mental states and experiences) I find myself taking a walk through the city. As I'm about to cross the street, a speeding truck runs a red light and will run me over if I don't immediately jump back onto the sidewalk.

    Let's suppose that (perhaps due to some quantum event in the brain) it is indeterminate whether I will notice the truck in time to move out of the way. Unfortunately for me it happens that I don't notice it in time and am hit by the truck.

    The indeterminate situation was created by prior causes, prominently including my own experiences and mental states. The indeterminacy was situated within my experiential framework (either I notice in time or not). So it looks like a prime case of agent-causation on your account. All hail freedom - I chose to be hit of my own free will.

    But of course no one would consider that a case of free action. It seems clear that my noticing the truck in time or not was not up to me. Surely if it was up to me, I would have chosen to notice it and move in time.

    In fact, if freedom necessarily involves indeterminacy, I can never reliably say what I would do in any case where something is genuinely up to me.

  24. Richard: I don't think that reasoning is fallacious, because it's hard to see how it is even possible for a thing to be "uncaused." (There's a difference between "undetermined" and "uncaused." The position of a quantum particle is undetermined, but we are fully aware of the forces that cause it to get to the range of places it could be -- the strong force, the weak force, gravity, electromagnatism, all that stuff...) Even a purely random event would seem to be caused in that some energy or other motive force had to enter the system for a change to occur. Since in the case of the big bang, such entry could not by definition be from the "outside," it would have to be from the "inside."

    Alternatively, we can take the big bang as evidence that the physical world is not causally closed, in which case I get to have dualism without epiphenomenalism.

    Derek: your case confuses internal choice with the external things that interact with the choice. The intervention of the truck, possibly outside the field of sense data of the person, is not an action of the person in the same sense that the motion of that person's arm is -- it's a purely external force. A choice is an action taken by an individual that meets the conditions I've set out.

    Put a different way, "noticing" is generally not an act or a conscious state. "Noticing" means "an external force interacts with one's sense organs." So your truck is inapposite.

  25. Also, Derek, I think it's true that one can never predict one's own actions in the future with perfect reliability. For example, consider the Milgram experiments.

  26. Richard, this is just 'for the record'.
    I think you originally somewhat mis-stated the objections of some against determinism.
    We all believe we can ‘apprehend’ what is “true” .
    Given a set of propositions and a conclusion, we can study, grasp the matter , and with utmost confidence will proclaim “ this is true”, or “this is false”.
    Arguments about everything are waged ( and sometimes settled ! ) on this basis.

    However, many people believe also that there is only physcial causation in this world, and that must therefore includes the events inside our own brains.
    It follows for a materialist, that all thoughts and conclusions are determinded in advance… are simply the inevitable result of previous causes .. it doesn’t matter what those causes are.

    We can therefore no longer claim “truth ‘ in our aguements.
    We might continue to argue because we want to, and perhaps believe that the events in my own brain just happen to coincide with reality, but even so all serious claim to ‘see’ or to ‘know’ truth absolutely must be abandoned.

    Thus the critic, goes on to say, “ Well, we all believe, and passionately, that we CAN know truth, and I propose there is ‘something’ essential to humans, which is ‘above’ physical casuality. A knowledge, not causless, ( as you suggest Richard) but caused by apprehension of truth alone.”
    This ‘something” which is to be able to see ‘truth’ is thus free in a special way, and is the basis for a true understanding of free will.
    And thus a different sort of freedom is possible than the merely “determined by the previous character “ proposition.

    I have my own way around such an argument, but even so the above deserves to be stated clearly.

    Good discuusions on this site recently I must say.

    cheers . david L.

  27. Yeah, I agree with you about the great discussions! :)

    I'm not so sure about the other arguments you describe, though. Why think that determinately caused beliefs cannot be true? If we've evolved in such a way as to be responsive to evidence and reasons, so that reality (as it impacts upon us) will cause us to have beliefs that mirror it, then there seems no problem here?

    (Sure, our cognitive processes are fallible, and evidence can be misleading, so we can't claim absolute certaintly -- but we never could in any case!)

  28. Stanley Climbfall: God's creation of the universe actually creates more problems for free will than it solves. St Thomas Aquinas was very clear on this:)

    If God knows all, then he knew what we would be doing now before we were born. In what sense then did we choose to act?

  29. vera: I don't know how you can be a semi-determinist. Either determinism is true, or indeterminism is true. One of them must be false. Therefore, 1/2 half is not an option.

    A probablistic approach is okay for sub-atomic particles (e.g. half lifes, etc) but what about the way things interact in the medium sized world?

  30. Very interesting discussion, and I'm sorry I got to it late. Not sure I would have had anything to contribute, though. On the one hand, it does seem like cheating to "move the goalposts" for freedom to include actions caused by a completely determined mental state, and it seems dubious to claim any significant distinction between this and fatalism. On the other hand, a) we certainly seem to have something that resembles freedom, and it seems hard to define what freedom would be in a way that is different from what we have, and b) even if we consider the possibility that our mental state is indeterminate (i.e. caused in part by events that are random), that doesn't really help to establish that we have any control over our actions that cannot be reduced to the influence of prior conditions.

    The gallery applauds. :)


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