Tag Archives: free will

Determinism, Order & Chaos


As science and philosophy explained ever more of the natural world in the Modern Era, there arose the philosophical idea of strict determinism. Strict determinism, as often presented, includes both metaphysical and epistemic aspects. In regards to the metaphysics, it is the view that each event follows from previous events by necessity. In negative terms, it is a denial of both chance and free will. A religious variant on this is predestination, which is the notion that all events are planned and set by a supernatural agency (typically God). The epistemic aspect is grounded in the metaphysics: if each event follows from other events by necessity, if someone knew all the relevant facts about the state of a system at a time and had enough intellectual capabilities, she could correctly predict the future of that system. Philosophers and scientists who are metaphysical determinists typically claim that the world seems undetermined to us because of our epistemic failings. In short, we believe in choice or chance because we are unable to always predict what will occur. But, for the determinist, this is a matter of ignorance and not metaphysics. For those who believe in choice or chance, our inability to predict is taken as being the result of a universe in which choice or chance is real. That is, we cannot always predict because the metaphysical nature of the universe is such that it is unpredictable. Because of choice or chance, what follows from one event is not a matter of necessity.

One rather obvious problem for choosing between determinism and its alternatives is that given our limited epistemic abilities, a deterministic universe seems the same to us as a non-deterministic universe. If the universe is deterministic, our limited epistemic abilities mean that we often make predictions that turn out to be wrong. If the universe is not deterministic, our limited epistemic abilities and the non-deterministic nature of the universe mean that we often make predictions that are in error. As such, the fact that we make prediction errors is consistent with deterministic and non-deterministic universes.

It can be argued that as we get better and better at predicting we will be able to get a better picture of the nature of the universe. However, until we reach a state of omniscience we will not know whether our errors are purely epistemic (events are unpredictable because we are not perfect predictors) or are the result of metaphysics (that is, the events are unpredictable because of choice or chance).

Interestingly, one feature of reality that often leads thinkers to reject strict determinism is what could be called chaos. To use a concrete example, consider the motion of the planets in our solar system. In the past, the motion of the planets was presented as a sign of the order of the universe—a clockwork solar system in God’s clockwork universe. While the planets might seem to move like clockwork, Newton realized that the gravity of the planets affected each other but also realized that calculating the interactions was beyond his ability. In the face of problems in his physics, Newton famously used God to fill in the gaps. With the development of powerful computers, scientists have been able to model the movements of the planets and the generally accepted view is that they are not parts of deterministic divine clock. To be less poetical, the view is that chaos seems to be a factor. For example, some scientists believe that the gas giant Jupiter’s gravity might change Mercury’s gravity enough that it collides with Venus or Earth. This certainly suggests that the solar system is not an orderly clockwork machine of perfect order. Because of this sort of thing (which occurs at all levels in the world) some thinkers take the universe to include chaos and infer from the lack of perfect order that strict determinism is false. While this is certainly tempting, the inference is not as solid as some might think.

It is, of course, reasonable to infer that the universe lacks a strict and eternal order from such things as the chaotic behavior of the planets. However, strict determinism is not the same thing as strict order. Strict order is a metaphysical notion that a system will work in the same way, without any variation or change, for as long as it exists. The idea of an eternally ordered clockwork universe is an excellent example of this sort of system: it works like a perfect clock, each part relentlessly following its path without deviation. While a deterministic system would certainly be consistent with such an orderly system, determinism is not the same thing as strict order. After all, to accept determinism is to accept that each event follows by necessity from previous events. This is consistent with a system that changes over time and changes in ways that seem chaotic.

Returning to the example of the solar system, suppose that Jupiter’s gravity will cause Mercury’s orbit to change enough so that it hits the earth. This is entirely consistent with that event being necessarily determined by past events such that things could not have been different. To use an analogy, it is like a clockwork machine built with a defect that will inevitably break the machine. Things cannot be otherwise, yet to those ignorant of the defect, the machine will seem to fall into chaos. However, if one knew the defect and had the capacity to process the data, then this breakdown would be completely predictable. To use another analogy, it is like scripted performance of madness by an actor: it might seem chaotic, but the script determines it. That is, it merely seems chaotic because of our ignorance. As such, the appearance of chaos does not disprove strict determinism because determinism is not the same thing as unchanging.


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Ethics & Free Will

Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.


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Running & Freedom

Photo by Paula O'Neil

Photo by Paula O’Neil

This past Saturday, I was doing my short pre-race day run and, for no apparent reason, my left leg began to hurt badly. I made my way home, estimating the odds of a recovery by Sunday morning. When I got up Sunday, my leg felt better and my short jog before the race went well. Just before the start, I was optimistic: it seemed my leg would be fine. Then the race started. Then the pain.

I hobbled forward and “accelerated” to an 8:30 per minute mile (the downside of a GPS watch is that I cannot lie to myself). The beast of pain grew strong and tore at my will. Behind that armor, my fear and doubt cowered—urging me to drop out with whispered pleas. At that moment of weakness, I considered doing the unthinkable: hobbling over to the curb and leaving the race.

From the inside, that is in my mind, this seemed to be a paradigm example of the freedom of the will: I could elect to push on through the pain or I could decide to take the curb. It was, as it might be said, all up to me. While I was once pulled from a race because of injuries, I had never left one by choice—and I decided that this would not be my first. I kept going and the pain got worse.

At this point, I considered that my pride was pushing me to my destruction—that is, I was not making a good choice but being coerced into making a poor decision. Fortunately, three decades of running had trained me well in pain assessment: like most veteran runners I am reasonably good at distinguishing between what merely hurts and what is actually causing significant damage. Carefully considering the nature of the pain and the condition of my leg, I judged that it was mere pain. While I could still decide to stop, I decided to keep going. I did, however, grab as many of the high caffeine GU packs as I could—I figured that being wired up as much as possible would help with pain management.

Aided by the psychological boost of my self-medication (and commentary from friends about my unusually slow pace), I chose to speed up. By the time I reached mile 5 my leg had gone comfortably numb and I increased my speed even more, steadily catching and passing people. Seven miles went by and then I caught up with a former student. He yelled “I can’t let you pass me Dr. L!” and went into a sprint. I decided to chase after him, believing that I could still hobble a mile even if I was left with only one working leg. Fortunately, the leg held up better than my student—I got past him, then several more people and crossed the finish line running a not too bad 1:36 half-marathon. My leg remained attached to me, thus vindicating my choice. I then chose to stuff pizza into my pizza port—pausing only to cheer on people and pick up my age group award.

As the above narrative indicates, my view is that I was considering my options, assessing information from my body and deciding what to do. That is, I had cast myself as having what philosophers like to label as free will. From the inside, that is what it certainly seems like.

Of course, it would presumably seem the same way from the inside if I lacked free will. Spinoza, for example, claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. As Spinoza saw it, people think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” As such, on Spinoza’s view my “decisions” were not actual decisions. That is, I could not have chosen otherwise—like the stone, I merely did what I did and, in my ignorance, believed that I had decided my course.

Hobbes also takes a somewhat similar view. As he sees it, what I would regard as the decision making process of assessing the pain and then picking my action he would regard as a competition between two pulling forces within the mechanisms of my brain. One force would be pulling towards stopping, the other towards going. Since the forces were closely matched for a moment, it felt as if I was deliberating. But, the matter was determined: the go force was stronger and the outcome was set.

While current science would not bring in Spinoza’s God and would be more complicated than Hobbe’s view of the body, the basic idea would remain the same: the apparent decision making would be best explained by the working of the “neuromachinery” that is me—no choice, merely the workings of a purely mechanical (in the broad sense) organic machine. Naturally, many would through in some quantum talk, but randomness does not provide any more freedom that strict determinism.

While I think that I am free and that I was making choices in the race, I obviously have no way to prove that. At best, all that could be shown was that my “neuromachinery” was working normally and without unusual influence—no tumors, drugs or damage impeding the way it “should” work. Of course, some might take my behavior as clear evidence that there was something wrong, but they would be engaged in poor decision making.

Kant seems to have gotten it quite right: science can never prove that we have free will, but we certainly do want it. And pizza.

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Fairness and free will (2)

In my previous post, I considered an argument against free will (let’s call it “the fairness argument”) along these lines:

P1. We have free will only if we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.
P2. We do not deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions in circumstances where such praise or blame is unfair.
P3. Praise or blame for our actions is unfair unless we are causally responsible for our relevant actions all the way down.
P4. We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.
C1. Praise or blame for our actions is always unfair. (From P3. and P4.)
C2. We never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From P2. and C1.)
C3. ~(We sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From C2.)
C. We do not have free will. (From P1. and C3.)

As I indicated in the earlier post, you can quibble with this formulation if you like; however, the fairness argument, properly formalised is deductively valid.

I accepted P4. for the sake of argument, and in any event I think P4. is actually true. Beyond that, I engaged in a certain amount of fencing, some of which, I think, casts (serious) doubt on P1. Whatever you think of either P4. or P1., however, there seems to be a real problem with P3., and this turns on the nature of “fairness”. I actually see no reason at all to accept P3. – it does not strike me as intuitively compelling, or even appealing, or as something that could be given any decisive intellectual support. To be fair(!), though, something like it appears, at least from my reading and interactions, to be rather popular.

Part of the problem with P3. is that there’s a mystery about what “praise” and “blame” really amount to. Perhaps on some conceptions of these things (error theories about praise and blame), sentences that praise or blame are always false. To keep this simple, let’s stick with praise. What if, when we praise someone for an act, we are stating (perhaps among other things) that the act complied with some objectively binding standard? If no such objectively binding standards exist, it follows that we are always saying something false when we praise somebody.

Again, what if, when we praise someone for an act, we are saying (perhaps among other things) that the person is causally responsible, all the way down, for a good act? If no one is ever causally responsible for an act all the way down, it follows, again, that we are always saying something false whenever we praise somebody.

But what if, when we praise someone for an act, we simply mean that the act is a good one in the sense of one that has such properties as to tend, relatively efficiently, to bring about the sorts of consequences favoured by the people involved in the conversation? In that case, we might often say something that is simply true. There might also be non-cognitive content to our praise, such as an expression of approval, but that content cannot be true or false – and there is going to be an interesting question about how such non-cognitive content can be unfair. Perhaps it can be, but we’d need to explore some arguments to see whether this makes sense.

I suspect, meanwhile, that praise involves both more and less than any than this. E.g., when I praise someone for an act I might be saying not just that the act is good (in the sense discussed above) but that the person is good. I.e., the person’s performance of the act has provided me with evidence that she possesses certain dispositions of character (courage, kindness, honesty, or whatever they may be) such as to be a desirable person to have around: such as to tend to act in ways favoured by me and the other people involved in the conversation, etc., etc.

If this is what expressions of praise really amount to, and if something analogous applies to dispraise or blame, then there is nothing necessarily unfair about praising someone for an act for which she was not causally responsible all the way down. Indeed, the fact that the action flowed from the dispositional structure of her character might support my words of praise or blame. The action did not happen at random, but was, to some extent, caused by the person’s character (even if this also had causes).

There is a huge body of academic literature on the words “praise” and “blame”, and what they mean, but at this stage someone who wants to run the fairness argument is already in trouble. P3. depends on a highly controversial idea, perhaps far detached from the thoughts of the folk, of what it is to praise or blame people. Or so it seems.

That’s troublesome enough, but P3. also depends on a controversial idea of fairness. The idea actually seems rather vague. Its essence seems to be an absence of bias, favouritism, patronage, nepotism, hostility, “bad vibes”, etc., in situations where, first, we are allocating/withholding benefits, rights, penalties, etc., and, second, the situation is such that exercising bias, favouritism, and so on, is somehow socially inappropriate or “bad”.

So Alice is not acting unfairly if she favours Bella as her lover rather than Clarice, even if Clarice’s good qualities might exceed Bella’s from some supposedly objective viewpoint. In a situation like this, bias, favouritism, idiosyncratic feelings of liking or attraction, “good vibes’, etc., are permitted (or so we usually assume), and fairness does not even enter into the picture.

In certain other situations, we think that bias, favouritism, etc., are not appropriate, and these are the situations where questions about fairness arise. But what does “fairness” then require? Well, the requirements will vary from situation to situation, as will the justifications that support them. In some cases, the requirements and the justifications will be deeply contested. For example, we tend (don’t we?) to think it fair that a person who is on trial in the criminal courts, or who is being sued in the civil courts, be given an accurate idea of what is alleged against her before she has to answer it. She should not be denied this because of bias, favouritism, hostility toward her from the judge, or the like.

Again, we tend to think that parents should give their various children roughly equal opportunities for happiness and success in life over time, and that any blatant lapse from this is “unfair”. We don’t want a mother or father, or the combination, to show blatant favouritism to a particular child. However, a parent may normally show bias, favour, etc., toward her own child, vis-à-vis other people’s children.

In some familiar cases, things get more complicated. What if I am working out what rates of pay to give my employees? There may be a problem if I do this based on personal bias, favouritism, patronage, whim, nepotism, etc. But it does not follow that I should pay them all equally. Fine, so how should I pay them? Should I pay my employees on the basis of their respective developed skills; on the basis of the responsibility that they have willingly taken on within my enterprise; on the basis of their average or daily productivity, as individuals, compared to similar employees in the enterprise (which may bring in issues of diligence, industriousness, etc.); on the basis of what employees with similar skills, records, etc., are likely to be paid by other enterprises (within the same labour market); or some mixture of all this (in which case, how do I measure and weight these things?); or something else? These questions weigh heavily on the minds of wages negotiators, industrial arbitration tribunals, etc., and they often develop pay fixation principles that are of at least some local assistance.

So… if I praise you as having performed a good act, or as being a generally good (or morally virtuous) person, or for having certain good dispositions of character, or having made a good judgment, or anything of the kind, am I under any obligation to be fair? Well, perhaps these important judgments should not be made on the basis of whether or not I like you (or have a family connection with you, or some such thing). They should, perhaps, be based on general criteria that I would apply to others, irrespective of personal feelings, familial loyalties, or the like. But that does not tell me what criteria I should actually use!

I take it that a claim that I am, first, in a situation where fairness is relevant (I should not exercise bias, favouritism, etc.), and, second, that I should use certain specific criteria (not others) in handing out benefits and rewards, will require something like a utilitarian justification. Of course, in many circumstances there is much conventional wisdom that may be worth deferring to about when fairness is (and is not) relevant, and about what criteria should be used to make judgments and to grant benefits, apply penalties, etc. There may be some merit in not trying to review these from scratch, using explicit utilitarian criteria. Either way, to say that I acted fairly is more or less to say that I applied the criteria that were relevant (whatever they were), in a situation that called for them (i.e., in a situation where I was not entitled to act on bias, favouritism, etc.), and (if this has to be said separately) without distortion from my personal feelings toward an affected person, etc.

Nothing at all follows from this that I must praise or blame people only if I find virtue or fault with them all the way down. People can genuinely make mistakes, act badly, show poor judgment, evidence a vicious character – or the opposites of any or all of these – without being causally responsible for their actions, judgments, characters, etc., all the way down. When we appraise them, we act fairly if we apply appropriate standards to the facts in evidence, without being biased by whom we like or dislike, the wish we could help or hinder the individual, etc.

Whatever, exactly, the ideas of praising and blaming really amount to, it is not at all obvious that they can be done fairly only if the people being appraised were responsible all the way down for their actions, judgments, and characters. Accordingly, P3. is not an attractive premise at all… and hence the whole argument is in trouble.

I’d love to see a similar argument that does not (in the view of its author) fall prey to this problem.

Fairness and free will (1)

The concept of what is “fair” causes trouble all the way through moral and political philosophy, and even in the free will debate. Here is an argument against the existence of free will, based on a notion of fairness:

P1. We have free will only if we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.
P2. We do not deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions in circumstances where such praise or blame is unfair.
P3. Praise or blame for our actions is unfair unless we are causally responsible for our relevant actions all the way down.
P4. We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.
C1. Praise or blame for our actions is always unfair. (From P3. and P4.)
C2. We never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From P2. and C1.)
C3. ~(We sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From C2.)
C. We do not have free will. (From P1. and C3.)

You can question whether the step at C3. is really needed, and you might want to rephrase something in the above to make sure this is all able to be represented in your favourite system of propositional calculus. However, at the end of the day you’ll find that it’s a deductively valid argument. So the only question is whether you accept its premises – if you do, you are intellectually committed to accepting the conclusion.

You’ll come across arguments that seem to go something like this (either expressly or implicitly), whether in the formal literature on the subject or in informal discussions on the internet and elsewhere. So, should we deny the existence of free will, based on something like this argument? (By all means, offer your improved version of it.)

Before we get to that, note a couple of points. The argument does not proceed straight from: “The world is deterministic” to “We don’t have free will.” It doesn’t even move, in a more sophisticated way, straight from: “The world is a mix of determinism and randomness” to “We don’t have free will.” That seems to be an advantage. It does not simply beg the question against theories that are compatibilist about determinism and free will (or about “a mix of determinism and randomness” and free will). Rather, it offers richer (purported) insights into how we understand free will, and if we accept these (purported) insights we might then be intellectually compelled to reject compatibilist approaches.

Conversely, note that the argument depends very much on a philosopher’s conception of free will. That may also be a strength. Philosophers are better placed than most to understand how free will has been conceived of in philosophical debate over the years and centuries. For example, they may be more familiar with the literature than scientists. If the argument shows that we lack free will, as thus understood, that is an important outcome.

Nonetheless, there may be other conceptions of free will that are not caught by the argument. What if it turns out that, when ordinary people who are not philosophers claim to have free will, they actually mean (and convey to each other) something that is rather vague and messy? Perhaps one of its primary components is merely a denial of fatalism. Or perhaps it is a denial of both fatalism and any related doctrines that involve our experienced choices being bypassed or overridden, so as to lack causal efficacy. For example, epiphenomenalism would have such an effect, even if it’s not a theory that the folk are specifically familiar with. If, as things turn out, that is really what ordinary people are trying to convey when they use the (perhaps inapposite) term “free will”, then they might not accept P1, at least not without a lot of caveats, qualifications, etc. For them, P1. might miss the point.

That said, P1. does sound rather plausible (doesn’t it?), so there is much to explore if somebody wants to reject it while also claiming that human beings have free will in some interesting sense. It seems to me that there is a lot more to be said here, but I’ll leave it for another time.

P4. is a crucial premise. It is basically a way of denying that we have libertarian free will, though again there is more to be said. Note, however, that the argument as a whole is not an argument against libertarian positions, as libertarians are likely to deny P4. Against them, I am assuming that P4. is true, and I’d support it with arguments about the world being a mix of determinism and randomness in a way that seems to preclude, if not free will (after all, there are accounts of free will that are compatible with this as far as it goes), at least ideas of ultimate self-determination and the like. The argument, then, would need to be supplemented with some further argument for P4. before it could persuade a free-will libertarian. As the argument stands, without that supplementation, it begs the question against libertarian positions on the free will question.

The drift of the argument, then, is that we cannot reject ideas of ultimate self-determination and the like while also maintaining the existence of anything that ought to be called “free will”.

So compatibilist ideas are not being rejected in P4., taken by itself. The argument is supposed to persuade compatibilists to become incompatibilists – the question is not begged against compatibilism.

Where, then, does the argument go wrong? Perhaps some compatibilists will argue that P1. is beside the point or even false, because it is not getting at what is really bugging the folk when they talk about free will (as evidenced in cultural history and contemporary popular culture). In that case, they may criticise much of the contemporary discussion of free will by analytic philosophers for having lost contact with what was bugging ordinary people in the first place. I feel some sympathy for this, as, perhaps, is evident over here, but much work would need to be done before we could be confident about this approach one way or the other.

I’ll set that aside. Meanwhile, I think an equally troubling problem arises with P3. Frankly, I see no reason at all to accept this premise. Nonetheless, it appears to have intuitive appeal for many people and to enjoy some popularity. In my next post, I’ll focus squarely on P3., asking whether we should accept it and the conception of fairness that it implies.

God, Rape & Free Will


freewill.jpg (Photo credit: Thunderkiss59)

The stock problem of evil is that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the Philosophy 101 conception of God, namely that God is all good, all powerful and all knowing. After all, if God has these attributes, then He knows about all evil, should tolerate no evil and has the power to prevent evil. While some take the problem of evil to show that God does not exist, it can also be taken as showing that this conception of God is in error.

Not surprisingly, those who wish to accept the existence of this all good, all powerful and all-knowing deity have attempted various ways to respond to the problem of evil. One standard response is, of course, that God has granted us free will and this necessitates that He allow us to do evil things. This, it is claimed, gets God off the hook: since we are free to choose evil, God is not accountable for the evil we do.

In a previous essay I discussed Republican Richard Mourdock’s view that “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” In the course of that essay, I briefly discussed the matter of free will. In this essay I will expand on this matter.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that we have free will. Obviously, this can easily be dispute, I am interested in seeing whether or not such free will can actually get God off the hook for the evil that occurs, such as rape and its consequences.

On the face of it, free will would seem to free God from being morally accountable for our choices. After all, if God does not compel or influence our choices and we are truly free to select between good and evil, then the responsibility of the choice would rest on the person making the decision. It should also be added that God would presumably also be excused from allowing for evil choices—after all, in order for there to be truly free will in the context of morality there must be the capacity for choosing good or evil. Or so the stock arguments usually claim.

For the sake of the discussion I will also accept this second assumption, namely that free will gets God off the hook in regards to our choices. This does, of course, lead to an interesting question: does allowing free will also require that God allow the consequences of the evil choices to come to pass? That is, could God allow people moral autonomy in their choices, yet prevent their misdeeds from actually bearing their evil fruit?

One way to consider this matter is to take the view that free will requires that a person be able to make a moral decision and that this decision be either good or evil (or possibly neutral). After all, a moral choice must be a moral choice. On this approach, whether or not free will would be compatible with God preventing occurrences (like rape or pregnancy caused by rape) would seem to depend on what makes something good or evil.

There are, of course, a multitude of moral theories that address this matter. For the sake of brevity I will consider two: Kant’s view and the utilitarian view (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill).

Kant famously takes the view that “A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition—that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination…Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value.”

For Kant, what makes a willing (decision) good or evil is contained in the act of willing itself. Hence, there would be no need to consider the consequences of an action stemming from a decision when determining the morality of the choice. An interesting illustration of this view can be found in Bioware’s Star Wars the Old Republic game. Players are often given a chance to select between light side (good) and dark side (evil) options, thus earning light side or dark side points which determine the moral alignment of the character. For example, a player might have to choose to kill or spare a defeated opponent.  Conveniently, the choices are labeled with symbols indicating whether a choice is light side or dark side—which would be very useful in real life.

If Kant’s view is correct, then God could allow the freedom of the will while also preventing evil choices from having any harmful consequences. For example, a person could freely chose to rape a woman and the moral choice would presumably be duly noted by God (in anticipation of judgment day). God could then simply prevent the rape from ever occurring—the rapist could, for example, stumble and fall while lunging towards his intended victim. As another example, a person could freely will the decision to murder someone, yet find that her gun fails to fire when aimed at the intended victim. In short, people could be free to make moral choices while at the same time being unable to actually bring those evil intentions into actuality. Thus, God could allow free will while also preventing anyone from being harmed.

It might be objected that God could not do this on the grounds that people would soon figure out that they could never actualize their evil decisions and hence people would (in general) stop making evil choices. That is, there would be a rather effective deterrent to evil choices, namely that they could never bear fruit and this would rob people of their free will. For example, those who would otherwise decide to rape if they could engage in rape would not do that because they would know that their attempts to act on their decisions would be thwarted.

The obvious reply is that free will does not mean that person gets what s/he wills—it merely means that the person is free to will. As such, people who want to rape could still will to rape and do so freely. They just would not be able to harm anyone.

It is, of course, obvious that this is not how the world works—people are able to do all sorts of misdeeds. However, since God could make the world work this way, this would suggest various possibilities such as God not existing or that God is not a Kantian. This leads me to the discussion of the utilitarian option.

On the stock utilitarian approach, the morality of an action depends on the consequences of said action. As Mill put it, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” As such, the morality of a willing would not be determined by the willing but by the consequences of the action brought about by the willing in question.

If this is correct, then God would need to allow the consequences of the willing to occur in order for the willing to be good or evil (or neutral). After all, if the willing had no consequences then it would have no moral significance on a consequentialist view like utilitarianism. So, for example, if a person freely wills to rape a woman, then God must not intervene. Otherwise He would be interfering with what determines the ethics of the willing. As such, if God did not allow the rapist to act upon his willing, then the decision to rape would not be an evil decision. If it is assumed that free will is essential to God being able to judge people for their deeds and misdeeds, then He would have to allow misdeeds to bear fruit so that they would be, in fact, misdeeds. On the usual view, He then punishes or rewards people after they die.

One rather obvious problem with this approach is that an all knowing God would know the consequences of an action even without allowing the action to take place. As such, God could allow people to will their misdeeds and then punish them for what the consequences would have been if they had been able to act upon their intentions. After all human justice punishes people even when they are prevented from committing their crimes. For example, someone who tries to murder another person is still justly punished even if she is prevented from succeeding.

It might be countered that God can only punish cases of actual evil rather than potential evil. That is, if the misdeed is prevented then it is not an actual misdeed and hence God cannot justly punish a person. On this view, God must allow rape in order to be able to toast rapists in Hell. This would, of course, require that God not consider an attempted evil deed as an evil deed. So, actual murder would be wrong, but attempted murder would not. This, of course, is rather contrary to human justice—but it could be claimed that human law and divine law are rather different. Obviously humans and God take very different approaches: we generally try to keep people from committing misdeeds whereas God apparently never does. Rather, He seems content to punish long after the fact—at least on the usual account of God.


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Of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of autonomy: the idea that we are, or can be, self-governing persons. This idea has great philosophical and practical importance. In particular, it is a fundamental one in modern medical ethics/medical law/bioethics. Medical practice and health policy are supposed to be constrained in substantial and important ways by ideas of autonomy. Beyond that, such ideas seem to be important in social and political philosophy.

Even people who deny the existence of free will (perhaps conceiving of it in a metaphysical sense that sounds conceptually confused, or as just implausible when matched up against our best image of reality) appear to work with some conception of personal autonomy, however deflationary. I might deny the existence of free will, yet still protest if a doctor treats my problems in a way that she refuses to explain to me, or which I resent but am, for some reason, unable to resist.

I’m currently reading John Christman’s 2009 book on the subject, The Politics of Persons. This represents the state of the art, I guess, and it does seem to have its share of insights (though the prose is often clumsy and seldom inspired). Christman has some interesting discussion of what is actually at stake when we talk about autonomy in this sense.

For Christman, the issue seems to be when we can consider an agent to be someone whose capacities and viewpoint “should matter as the sources of valid claims in collective decisions and toward whom paternalistic intervention would be disrespectful” (p. 162).

That sounds quite good to me. What do you think?

Eddy Nahmias reviews Sam Harris

The newest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine contains a review by Eddy Nahmias of Free Will by Sam Harris. (For those who’ve missed my own discussions of Harris earlier this year, a good place to start would be this long reflective essay published at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.)

I’m a bit free-willed out from writing earlier posts in this series, not to mention the abovementioned ABC Portal piece. Still, I’m largely onside with Nahmias, and in any event this review of Harris by a philosopher who has important and original peer-reviewed publications in the field is worth drawing to the attention of … well, whichever of this blog’s readers might still be interested.

In the end, Nahmias makes a point about how this is not all-or-nothing. We can study what people seem to think free will is, what free will talk is actually conveying when ordinary folk engage in it, and then we can study to what extent we actually have such a capacity.

This sounds like a plausible position to me: “Unlike the impossible self-creation and self-knowledge Harris foists upon free will, a more reasonable and accurate understanding of free will is amenable to scientific study. Science is likely to show that we have less free will than we tend to think, and learning this may move us towards Harris’s practical goals.” Or maybe it won’t. At any rate, I look forward to Nahmias’ own (long-awaited) book on the subject.

And while I’m here, there’s lots of other good stuff in the new TPM, especially relating to the institution of sport: philosophers scrutinising it from many angles just in time for the Olympic Games.

Psychohistory & Big Data

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Isaac Asimov introduced the fictional scientific field of psychohistory in his Foundation universe. In this science fiction setting, this science could predict the future by analyzing data and making inductive inferences from this data using various algorithms and formulas. The predictions resulting from the science are not about specific individuals, but rather about broad events. For example, the science could predict the fall of the Empire, but it could not be used to predict which specific person would be the emperor at that time.

Not surprisingly, real thinkers have been striving to make such predictions for quite some time and have met with some success at making statistical predictions involving large numbers of people. For example, the number of traffic accidents that will occur in a year can be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy as can the number of births.  However, making the sort of predictions made in the Foundation series has been beyond the reach of current social sciences. However, this might change.

Psychohistory is, in many ways, would work like weather prediction: data needs to be collected, analyzed and used to create mathematical models. Ideally, the model would be a perfect duplicate of reality and time could be accelerated in the model to see what will happen. Of course, making such a model is rather challenging.

One major restrictive factor has been that of data. After all, the ideal would be a perfect reconstruction of the world and to the degree that the available data falls short, the model becomes less than accurate.

While humans have been gathering and storing information since the advent of writing, we are currently gathering and storing more information than ever before. In fact, the practice of gathering, storing and analyzing data is now a standard business practice that goes by the name “Big Data.” Google was one of the pioneers of modern Big Data but other companies and organizations have gotten into the game. Some are involved because it is an industry worth billions while others are involved for other reasons (such as law enforcement). In any case, significant effort is being expended to gather up data that would be useful in predicting human behavior whether the goal is to sell more baby products or fight terrorism. People are, of course, contributing to this process by handing over massive amounts of data via social networking sites and other ways, such as trading private information for “free” stuff.  As such, there is now a massive quantity of Big Data that would be very useful in modeling the future.

The data will, of course, always be less than complete. In addition to the practical limits, there is also the problem of “limited” omniscience—knowing everything that is and was. Unlimited omniscience would include knowing everything, including what will be (assuming that can be known). Given human limitations, we will never have that complete information. As such, the epistemic limits will certainly prevent a perfect model because there will presumably always be past things that we do not know (and perhaps there are unknowable things) and hence they will not be in the data.

But, perhaps there is a way around this. If a suitably awesome machine could be built, perhaps it could predict everything from a single truth—a Cartesian machine of sorts. This leads to a second restrictive element.

A second restrictive factor has been a matter of logic. To be specific, there is the problem of creating the “software” to analyze the massive amounts of data so as to make predictions. Much of this involves inductive reasoning. After all, the goal is to make an inference from what is known (the sample) to what is not known (the target). This sort of reasoning is, of course, essentially philosophical. As such, it is hardly surprising that Leibniz was one of the first to explicitly propose creating a model of reality using symbols. Hobbes also believed that the social sciences could be “real” sciences and took geometry as his model.

While the “software” is still not quite up to psychohistory standards, there have been some impressive results in the business world in the field of predictive analysis. Of course, some of these successes have created some concern such as Target’s infamous use of such results to predict pregnancies and thus engage in targeted marketing of women who were statistically likely to be pregnant based on their buying behaviors.

As might be imagined, metaphysics becomes a factor in regards to predictive software. One important matter is whether or not humans have free will. After all, if humans do have free will in the classic sense, then predicting human behavior will always be limited by that factor. Of course, it can be argued that even if people do have that mysterious free will, people still behave in ways that are subject to statistical analysis. So, X% of people will freely do Y, while Z% of people will freely not. Though they are all free, the general patterns of behavior would certainly remain predictable. After all, we already engage in effective statistical predictions and if these are compatible with our (alleged) free will, then it seems reasonable that the same would apply to other large scale predictions as well. As such, psychohistory would be consistent with free will. That said, perhaps free will could be a factor that could “break” some predictions, perhaps in very important ways. The “breakage” caused by free will would seem to depend on how much impact individual choice has on the behavior of the whole.

A second important matter is, obviously enough, whether reality is determined or not. If we live in a deterministic world, this would seem to make definitive predictions easier (if that even makes sense to say in a deterministic universe). After all, there would be no random chance or free will to complicate matters. Of course, even if we live in a random universe then predictions would still be possible. They would, of course, lack the certainly that would be theoretically possible in a deterministic universe, but such is life in a random universe.

A third important matter is whether or not reality can be adequately modeled. This involves concerns about the nature of reality as well as the capability of humans to develop a means of modeling reality. It seems reasonable to believe that our models will always fall short of reality, thus ensuring that predictions will always potentially be in error.

A third restrictive factor is processing power. Before computers, data analysis was done by humans and this placed a rather serious limit on the volume of data processed and the speed at which it could be done. While modern computers lack human intelligence, they are well suited to data analysis—at least once they have been properly programmed by humans. While the industry is starting to run into the limits imposed by physics when it comes to improvements in processors, creating massive networks as provided a means to work around this, at least for a while.

There is, of course, the fact that it is probably impossible to build a machine with enough processing power to recreate the world (even if it is assumed that the data is complete and completely accurate) even in a virtual way. As such, this will also limit the efficacy of predictions.

Perhaps someday we will be able to predict the future so as to know whether or not we need to wear shades.

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On Sam Harris on free will

Over on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, I’ve written a long response to the new book, Free Will, by Sam Harris. I say “response” rather than “review”, because much of it discusses my own reflections on fate, free will, determinism, and the long cultural conversation that we’ve been having about these things in the West, going back for thousands of years.

My problem with the Sam Harris book is not so much that I disagree with his conclusions – although I do disagree with some of them – so much that I disagree with the way he approaches the problem. First, he uses a rather idiosyncratic definition of free will that doesn’t have much to do with definitions that have been used by philosophers or with whatever intuitive idea of free will the folk might have (if, indeed, they even have a unified idea of it – I suspect that the folk talk past each other on this to a large extent). Thus, much of the book has an air of attacking a straw man.

Second, and worse, Harris responds to compatibilists by accusing them of changing the subject (notwithstanding that attempts to work out what it might be for actions to be “up to us”, including the plausibility of compatibilist accounts, have been part of the conversation at least since Hellenistic times) and of writing like theologians (whatever that actually means, it is not likely to be true of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayer, Daniel Dennett, or other leading compatibilists). There’s a certain insouciance, at best, about all this.

As for whether “we have free will”, I remain of the opinion that libertarian views of free will are ultimately unintelligible – this seems to me the case with agent causation views, and I doubt that event causation views of libertarian free will, such as Robert Kane’s, can fare any better. Indeed, I’d argue that they eventually rely covertly on agent causation intuitions to give themselves any plausibility. About the best libertarians can do is claim, rather lamely, that all ideas of causation are mysterious when pushed far enough.

I agree with Sam Harris on the non-existence of libertarian free will – if the idea even makes sense – though Harris shows no sign of having read at all deeply in the literature. I also think that compatibilists have enough problems to make free will, at best, a matter of judgment and degree. But the naked claim, “You do not have free will,” uttered to ordinary people, still seems to me more false than true. More research is needed on what this claim actually conveys to people (and it may convey different things to people from different social classes, educational backgrounds, parts of the world, etc. (experimental philosophers take note)), but it looks to me that what is likely to be at stake for many people is not so much the truth or falsity of something like agent causation but the truth or falsity of some kind of fatalism. Saying “You do not have free will,” is likely to convey, to many people, in many circumstances, the false (and perhaps demoralising) message that some kind of fatalism is the truth of it.

I’m painfully aware of a similar issue in metaethics. I deny that there are objective moral truths of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong.” That’s because I take a particular view as to what this conveys, and I consider what it conveys to be false. On the other hand, I’d want to explain myself very carefully before saying to the folk, “Torturing babies for fun is not morally wrong.” That can all too easily convey the false message that torturing babies for fun is not, in my evaluation, bad. And when I say bad, I don’t mean as in, “That was baaaad, dude!”