It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
Half-right, say I. I am the captain of the ship of soul, my soul; I control rudder and sails and chart my course. But I am not the master of the sea or the wind or the monsters of the deep or the visibility of the stars by which I steer, or the stars themselves.
Nor am I the master of that which I control, my soul. That I am a soul is beyond my control.
And so my captaincy, sovereign in its own domain, and undeniable there, is bound round and denied by conditions and contingencies beyond my control.
I am not the master of my fate; at most I am the master of my attitude to it.
I noticed that you posted a link to my blog post "Coyne versus Vallicella Vapaista Valinnoista" (Coyne vs Vallicella on Free Will). Thanks for the link! The main language is Finnish, so I´m not too surprised that you can´t read it.
One correction, though. It is not a "response" to you, but to Jerry Coyne. I just lay out your arguments on that post and defend them against Coyne.
I have been enjoying your blog for a couple of years now, and I have to say that I like how your mind works. There are a lot of issues I am thinking about currently regarding philosophy and that didn't change after reading Angus Menuge's book Agents Under Fire. If you haven't read that, I strongly recommend you to. He has some very interesting arguments regarding reason, intentionality, agency, reductionism, materialism etc. One issue is bugging me particularly these days, and it is the ever-lasting question of free will. I hope I am not asking too much, but would you be able to tell me what your position about free will is and briefly explain why you hold that position?
My position, bluntly stated, is that we are libertarianly free. As far as I'm concerned the following argument is decisive:
1. We are morally responsible for at least some of our actions and omissions. 2. Moral responsibility entails libertarian freedom of the will. Therefore 3. We are libertarianly free.
Is this a compelling argument? By no means. (But then no argument for any substantive philosophical thesis is compelling. Nothing substantive in philosophy has ever been proven to the satisfaction of all competent practioners.) One could, with no breach of logical propriety, deny the conclusion and then deny one or both of the premises. As we say in the trade, "One man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens." Any valid argument can be thrown into 'inferential reverse,' the result being a valid argument.
I of course acccept both premises. That I am morally (as opposed to causally, and as opposed to legally) responsible for at least some of what I do and leave undone I take to be more evident than its negation. And, like Kant, I see compatibilism as a shabby evasion, "the freedom of the turnspit."
Some will say that free will and moral responsibility are illusions. I find that incoherent for reasons supplied here. Other posts in the Free Will category touch upon some of the more technical aspects of the problem.
There is a lot of utter rubbish being scribbled by scientists these days about philosophical questions. Typically, these individuals, prominent in their fields, don't have a clue as to the nature, history, or proper exfoliation of these questions. Recently, biologist Jerry Coyne has written a lot of crap about free will that I expose in these posts:
This stuff is crap in the same sense in which most of Ayn Rand's philosophical writings are crap. The crappiness resides not so much in the theses themselves but in the way the theses are presented and argued, and the way objections are dealt with. But if I had to choose between the scientistic crapsters (Krauss, Coyne, Hawking & Mlodinow, et al.) and Rand, I would go with Rand. At least she understands that what she is doing is philosophy and that philosophy is important and indispensable. At least she avoids the monstrous self-deception of the scientistic crapsters who do philosophy while condemning it.
2. Suppose A and B are mutually incompatible but individually possible courses of action, and I am deliberating as to whether I should do A or B. (Should I continue with this blogging business, or give it up?) Deliberating, I have the sense that it is up to me what happens. I have the sense that it is not the case that events prior to my birth, together with the laws of nature, necessitate that I do what I end up doing. Seriously deliberating, I presuppose the falsity of determinism. For if I were thoroughly and truly convinced of the truth of determinism it would be psychologically impossible for me to deliberate. (Compare: were I thoroughly and truly convinced of the truth of naturalism it would be psychologically impossible for me to pray or engage in any spiritual practice the successful outcome of which requires the falsity of naturalism.)
3. Determinism is the thesis that, given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. When I seriously deliberate, however, my deliberation behavior manifests the belief that there is more than one possible future, and that it is up to me which of these possible futures becomes actual. There is the possible future in which I hike tomorrow morning and blog in the afternoon and the equipossible future in which I blog tomorrow morning and hike in the afternoon. And which becomes actual depends on me.
One may be tempted to say that the indisputable fact of deliberation proves the reality of free will.
4. But then someone objects: "The sense that it is up to you what happens is illusory; it merely seems to you that you are the ultimate source of your actions. In reality your every action is determined by events before your birth." The objector is not denying the fact of deliberation; he is denying that the fact of deliberation entails the reality of free will. He is claiming that the fact of deliberation is logically consistent with the nonexistence of free will.
5. To evaluate this objection, we need to ask what is meant by 'illusory' in this context. Clearly, the word is not being used in an ordinary way. Ordinary illusions can be seen through and overcome. Hiking at twilight I jump back from a tree root I mis-take for a snake. In cases of perceptual illusion like this, one can replace illusory perceptions with veridical ones. Something similar is true of other illusions such as those of romantic love and the sorts of illusions that leftists cherish and imagine as in the eponymous John Lennon ditty. In cases like these, further perception, more careful thinking, keener observation, 'due diligence' and the like lead to the supplanting of the illusory with the veridical.
But if free will is an illusion, it is not an illusion that can be cast off or seen through no matter what I do. I must deliberate from time to time, and I cannot help but believe, whenever I deliberate, that the outcome is at least in part 'up to me.' Indeed, it is inconceivable that I should disembarrass myself of this 'illusion.' One can become disillusioned about many things but not about the 'illusion' of free will. For it is integral to my being an agent, and being an agent is part and parcel of being a human being. To get free of the 'illusion' of free will, I would have to learn to interpret myself as a deterministic system whose behavior I merely observe but do not control. I would have to learn how to cede control and simply let things happen. But this is precisely what I cannot do.
It would be nice if one could 'switch off' one's free agency. Sophie's choice was agonizing because she knew that it was up to her which child would remain with her and which would be taken away by the Nazi SS officer. Now which is more certain: that she knows that she is a free agent responsible for her choices, or that she knows that she is a wholly deterministic system and that the sense of free agency and moral responsibility are but illusions? The answer ought to be obvious: the former is more certain . One is directly aware of one's free agency, while it is only by shaky abstract reasoning that one comes to the view that free will is an illusion.
We are not free to be free agents or not. It is an essential attribute of our humanity. Thus we are "condemned to be free" in a famous phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre. The sound core of the Sartrean exaggeration is that being free is constitutive of being human. No doubt I can try to view myself as a mere deterministic system pushed around by external forces, but that is a mode of self-deception, a mode of what Sartre calls mauvaise-foi, bad faith. Determinism is "an endless well of excuses" as I seem to recall Sartre saying somewhere. Being free is constitutive of being human.
6. Or is it only the (false) belief that one is free that is constitutive of being human? Perhaps the fact of deliberation proves merely that one must view oneself as free when in reality we are not free. Why couldn't it be the case that we all go through life with the irremovable false belief that some of what happens is up to us when in reality nothing is up to us?
My considered opinion is that this ultimately does not make any sense. It makes as little sense as the notion that consciousness is an illusion. Consciousness cannot be an illusion for the simple reason that it is a presupposition of the distinction between reality and illusion. An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there is no consciousness there are no illusions either. There simply is no (nonverbal) distinction between the illusion of consciousness and consciousness. Similarly for the difference between the illusion of being a free agent and the reality of being a free agent. It is difficult to see any (nonverbal) difference.
Connected with this is the impossibility of existentially appropriating the supposed truth of determinism. Suppose determinism is true. Can I live this truth, apply it to my life, make it my own? Can I existentially appropriate it? Not at all. To live is to be an agent, and to be an agent is to be a free agent. To live and be human is not merely to manifest a belief, but an all-pervasive ground-conviction, of the falsity of determinism. Determinism cannot be practically or existentially appropriated. It remains practically meaningless, a theory whose plausibility requires a third-person objective view of the self. But the self is precisely subjective in its innermost being and insofar forth, free and unobjectifiable.
If you look at the self from a third person point of view, then determinism has some plausibility, for then you are considering the self as just another object among objects, just another phenomenon among phenomena subject to the laws of nature. But the third person point of view presupposes the first person point of view, and it is the latter from which we live. We are objects in the world, but we live as subjects for whom there is a world, a world upon which we act and must act. Subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable.
We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere? No philosopher has explained this. What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them.
All indications are that the problem is simply insoluble and we ought to be intellectually honest enough to face the fact. It is no solution at all, and indeed a shabby evasion, to write off the first-person point of view as illusory.
There's not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It's impossible, anyway, to act as though we don't have it: you'll pretend to choose your New Year's resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of "me" are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we're bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.
This, Coyne's concluding paragraph, has it all: scientism, incoherence, and liberal victimology.
1. Coyne realizes that we cannot deliberate, choose, and act without the belief in free will. He realizes that one cannot, say, choose to eat less in the coming year without believing (even if falsely) that one is freely choosing, without believing that the choice is 'up to oneself.' But then Coyne immediately confuses this unavoidable false believing with pretending to choose. He seems to think that if my choice is determined and not free (in the libertarian sense explained in the earlier post), then it is not a genuine choice, but a pretend choice. But that is not the case. A choice is genuine whether or not it is determined.
People deliberate and choose. Bicycles don't. That's part of the pre-analytic data. It is also part of the pre-analytic data that people sometimes pretend to deliberate and pretend to choose. It is a grotesque confusion on Coyne's part to think that if one is determined to choose then one's choice is not genuine but pretend. (Note also that if determinism is true, then one's pretending to choose is also determined without prejudice to its being a real case of pretending to choose.)
Coyne is making a mistake similar to the one he made at the beginning of the piece. There he implied that if a choice is not free then it is not a choice. But a choice is a choice whether free or determined. Coyne was confusing the question, Are there choices? with the question, Are there free choices? He now thinks that if a choice is determined, then it not a real, but a merely pretend, choice. That is doubly confused. Just as a pretend choice can be free, a real choice can be determined.
2. We are then told that consciousness, free choice, and the idea of the self are "illusions fashioned by natural selection." This is nonsense pure and simple.
First of all, consciousness cannot be an illusion. Consciousness cannot be an illusion for the simple reason that it is a presupposition of the distinction between reality and illusion. An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there is no consciousness there are no illusions either. There simply is no (nonverbal) distinction between the illusion of consciousness and consciousness. If one is under the illusion that one is conscious, then one is conscious, really conscious, and therefore not under any illusion about the matter.
The thesis that consciousness is an illusion is self-refuting. If I merely seem to be conscious, but am not conscious, then I am conscious. And if I do not merely seem to be conscious, but am conscious, then (of course) I am conscious. Therefore, necessarily, if I seem to be conscious, then I am conscious. Here we bite on granite, and "our spade is turned" -- to mix Nimzovich and Wittgenstein metaphors. Or in the words of a German proverb, Soviel Schein, soviel Sein.
Consciousness, in this regard, is analogous to truth. If you try to say something about truth, you presuppose truth. For if you try to say something about truth, presumably you are trying to say something true about truth. So if you say that truth is an illusion, and that there are no truths, then you are saying that in truth there are no truths -- which is self-refuting. If, on the other hand, you are simply making noises or perhaps aiming to say something false, the we ignore you for those reasons.
3. I don't believe that one can show in the same clean 'knock-down' way that free will is not an illusion. That consciousness is an illusion is a plainly incoherent idea; the incoherence of the notion that free will is an illusion is harder to uncover. But suppose we ask, "In which sense of 'illusion' is free will an illusion?" It is nothing like a correctable perceptual illusion of the sort we are subject to on a daily basis. The 'illusion' of free will, if illusion it be, cannot be thrown off. I cannot function as an agent without taking myself to be free, and I cannot cease being an agent short of suicide. Echoing Sartre, I am condemned to agency and to that extent "condemned to be free." Even a mad-dog quietist who decided to renounce all action, would be deciding to renounce all action and thereby demonstrating willy-nilly the ineradicable reality of his agency. An 'illusion' that it constutive of my very being an agent is no illusion in any worthwile sense of the term.
It's a bit like an Advaitin (an adherent of Advaita Vedanta) telling me that the multiple world of our ordinary sense experience is an illusion. "OK, but what does that mean? When we are at the shooting range, you are going to take care not to be down range when the shooting starts, right? Why, if the world of multiplicity, the world of shotguns and shells and targets and tender human bodies is an illusion? Why would it matter? Obviously, you are playing fast and loose with 'illusion' and don't really believe that this gun and your head are illusions.)
One cannot distinguish (except verbally) the mere appearance of consciousness and the reality of consciousness. Similarly, I suggest that one cannot distinguish between the 'illusion' of free will and its reality. This thesis of course requires much more development and support! But hey, this is a blog, just an online notebook!
Those who claim that free will is an illusion are simply playing fast and loose with the word 'illusion.' There are not using it in an ordinary way, in the sort of way that gives it its ordinary 'bite'; they are using it in some extended way that drains it of meaning. It is a kind of bullshitting that scientists often fall into when they are spouting scientism in the popular books they scribble to turn a buck. Doing science is hard; writing bad philosopohy is easy. By the way, that is why we need philosophy. We need it to expose all the pseudo-philsophy abroad in the world.
We need philosophy to bury its undertakers lest there be all those rotting corpses laying about.
4. Finally, Coyne tells us we are all "victims of circumstance." But I've had enough of this guy for one day. I shouldn't be wasting so much time on him.
Daniel Dennett is a compatibilist: he holds that determinism and free will are logically compatible. (Compare Dennett's position to Coyne's hard determinism and free will illusionism.) On p. 134 of Freedom Evolves (Penguin, 2003), Dennett considers the following incompatibilist argument. It will be interesting to see how he responds to it.
1. If determinism is true, whether I Go or Stay is completely fixed by the laws of nature and events in the distant past. 2. It is not up to me what the laws of nature are, or what happened in the distant past.
3. Therefore, whether I Go or Stay is completely fixed by circumstances that are not up to me.
4. If an action of mine is not up to me, it is not free (in the morally important sense).
5. Therefore, my action of Going or Staying is not free.
Dennett considers the above argument to be fallacious: "it commits the same error as the fallacious argument about the impossibility of mammals." (135) The 'mammals argument' is given on p. 126 and goes like this (I have altered the numbering to prevent confusion):
6. Every mammal has a mammal for a mother. 7. If there have been any mammals at all, there have been only a finite number of mammals.
8. But if there has been even one mammal, then by (6), there have been an infinity of mammals, which contradicts (7), so there can't have been any mammals. It's a contradiction in terms.
The two arguments, says Dennett, "commit the same error." He continues:
Events in the distant past were indeed not "up to me," but my choice now to Go or Stay is up to me because its "parents" -- some events in the recent past, such as the choices I have recently made -- were up to me (because their parents were up to me), and so on, not to infinity, but far enough back to give my self enough spread in space and time so that there is a me for my decisions to be up to! The reality of a moral me is no more put in doubt by the incompatibilist argument than is the reality of mammals. (135-136)
It is clear that the 'mammals argument' goes wrong since we know that there are mammals. There are mammals even though there is no Prime Mammal nor an infinite regress of mammals. Gradual evolutionary changes from reptiles through intermediary therapsids led eventually to mammals. Thus mammals evolved from non-mammals. Dennett wants to say the same about events that are 'up to me.' Events before my birth were not up to me, but some events now are up to me since they are the causal descendants of acts that were up to me. Dennett seems to be saying that events that are up to a person, and thus free in a sense to support attributions of moral responsibility, have gradually evolved from events that were not up to a person, and hence were unfree. Freedom evolves from unfreedom.
This is a creative suggestion, but what exactly is wrong with the above consequence argument? I see what is wrong with the 'mammals argument': (6) is false. But which premise of the incompatibilist argument is false? The premises are plausible and there is no error in logic. If the error is the same as the one in the 'mammals argument,' as Dennett say, what exactly is this error? Presumably, the error is the failure to realize that the property of being up to me is an emergent property. So is Dennett rejecting premise (1)?
But the truth of (1) is merely a consequence of the definition of 'determinism.' Since Dennett does not reject determinism, it is quite unclear to me what exactly is wrong with the incompatibilist argument. The analogy between the two arguments is murky, and I fail to see what exactly is wrong with the incompatibilist argument. Which premise is to be rejected? Which inference is invalid? Talk of freedom evolving is too vague to be helpful. Or am I being too kind? The notion that freedom evolves from unfreedom is perhaps better described as inconceivable, as inconceivable as mind emerging from "incogitative Matter" in Locke's memorable phrase.
Perhaps you've chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you're in a hotel, maybe you've decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you'll wear today.
You haven't. You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. . . . And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.
Suppose you have chosen to read Coyne's essay and have decided on scrambled eggs for breakfast. Well then, you have made a choice and a decision and it is nonsense for Coyne to claim that you haven't just done those things. It is also nonsense to claim that you had no choice concerning your New Year's resolutions. It is a plain fact that one chooses, decides, and deliberates. What is debatable, however, is whether one freely chooses, decides, deliberates. Coyne gets off to a rocky start by conflating these two questions:
1. Do human beings ever choose, decide, deliberate? 2. Do human beings ever freely choose, decide, deliberate?
Only the second can be debated reasonably, and this, to be charitable, is the question Coyne is posing. His answer is that we never freely choose, decide, deliberate. His thesis is that "free will is a complete illusion."
Suppose you ordered the scrambled eggs. No one held a gun to your head: your choice was uncoerced and in that sense free. So you made a choice and you made a free (uncoerced) choice. But there is another sense of 'free' and it is the one with which Coyne is operating:
3. Do human beings ever freely choose, etc. in the sense that they could have done otherwise even if all the antecedent conditions up to the point of the choice, etc. were the same?
Call this the libertararian sense of 'free' and distinguish it from the compatibilist sense of the word. To refine Coyne's thesis, he is claiming that libertarian freedom of the will is an illusion. Why should we believe this? Coyne says that there are "two lines of evidence."
Although Coyne uses the word 'evidence' and postures as if empirical science is going to step in, do some real work, and finally solve a problem that philosophers in their armchairs merely endlessly gas off about, the first "line of evidence" he provides is just a stock deterministic argument that could have been given in the 18th century. Determinism is the thesis that the actual past together with the actual laws of nature render only one present nomologically possible. Determinism has two consequences: it deprives the agent of alternative future possibilities, and it insures that the agent is not the ultimate source of any action. For if determinism is true, the agent himself is nothing other than an effect of causes that stretch back before his birth, so that no part of the agent can be an ultimate origin of action. Hence when you chose the scrambled eggs you could not have done otherwise given the actual past: you could not have chosen oat meal instead. You made a choice all right; it is just that it wasn't a libertarianly-free choice.
There 's nothing new here. We are just complex physical systems, and determinism is true. So everything that happens in our bodies and brains is necessitated, and libertarian freedom of will cannot exist. Hence our sense that we are libertarianly free is an illusion.
That's a nice philosophical argument that makes no appeal to empirical facts. Amazing how so many of these scientistic science types with their contempt for philosophy cannot help doing philosophy (while disingenuously denying that that is what they are doing) and simply trotting out old philosophical arguments all the while displaying their ignorance as to their origin and how to present them rigorously.
The argument is only as good as its premises. Even if we assume determinism, it is scarcely obvious that we are just complex physical systems: "Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics."
Really? I am now enjoying a memory of hippy-trippy Pam from the summer of '69. So my memory state is identical to a brain state. But that is arguably nonsense: the one exhibits intentionality ,the other doesn't, and so by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, they cannot be identical. No materialist has ever given a satisfactory account of intentionality.
So the first argument is rather less than compelling despite Coyne's scientistic posturing: "And what they're [neuroscientists] finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion."
The other "line of evidence" is from neurobiology:
Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject "decides" to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. [. . .] "Decisions" made like that aren't conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense.
This argument is hardly compelling. For one thing, it appears to confuse predictability with unfreedom. Suppose I am able to predict accurately how Peter will behave in a range of situations. It doesn't follow that he does not act freely (in the libertarian sense) in those situations. On the basis of my knowledge of his character and habits, I predict that Peter will smoke a cigarette within an hour. That is a prediction about the future of the actual world. Suppose he does smoke a cigarette within an hour. My correct prediction does not entail that could not have done otherwise than smoke a cigarette within an hour. It does not entail that there is no possible world in which he refrains from smoking a cigarette within an hour.
So if, on the basis of unconscious brain activity, it is predicted that the subject will make a conscious decision, and he does, that does not entail that the decision was not free. Furthermore, why should 'decision' be used to cover the whole seven second brain process? If 'decision' is used to refer to the conscious pressing of the button, then no part of the decision is unconscious, and Coyne's argument collapses. What scientistic types don't seem to understand is that empirical science is not purely empirical. It cannot proceed without conceptual decisions that are a priori.
If Coyne thinks that contemporary neuroscience has proven that there is no libertarian freedom of the will, then he is delusional: he is passing off dubious philosophy as if it were incontrovertible science while hiding the fact from himself.
In the sequel I will will adress the question whether libertarian free will could be an illusion. Does that so much as make sense?
Robert Kane (A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford 2005, p. 19) rightly bids us not confuse determinism with fatalism:
This is one of the most common confusions in free will debates. Fatalism is the view that whatever is going to happen, is going to happen, no matter what we do. Determinism alone does not imply such a consequence. What we decide and what we do would make a difference in how things turn out -- often an enormous difference -- even if determinism should be true.
Although it is true that determinism ought not be confused with fatalism, Kane here presents an uncharitable definition of 'fatalism.' No sophisticated contemporary defender of fatalism would recognize his position in this definition. Indeed, as Richard Taylor points out in a well-known discussion (Metaphysics, Ch. 6), it is logically incoherent to suppose that what will happen will happen no matter what. If I am fated to die in a car crash, then I am fated to die in that manner -- but it is absurd to append 'no matter what I do.' For I cannot die in a car crash if I flee to a Tibetan monastery and swear off automobiles. There are certain things I must do if I am to die in a car crash. As Taylor says, The expression 'no matter what,' by means of which some philosophers have sought an easy and even childish refutation of fatalism, is accordingly highly inappropriate in any description of the fatalist conviction. (Metaphysics, 3rd ed., p. 57)
Kane's contrast is therefore bogus: no sophisticated contemporary is a fatalist in Kane's sense. Should we conclude that fatalism and determinism are the same? No. I suggest we adopt Peter van Inwagen's definition: "Fatalism . . . is the thesis that that it is a logical or conceptual truth that no one is able to act otherwise than he in fact does; that the very idea of an agent to whom alternative courses of action are open is self-contradictory." (An Essay on Free Will, p. 23.)
As I understand the matter, fatalism differs from determinism since the determinist does not say that it is a logical or conceptual truth that no one is able to act otherwise than he in fact does. What the determinist says is that the actual past together with the actual laws of nature render nomologically possible only one future. The determinist must therefore deny that the future is open. But his claim is not that it is logically self-contradictory that the future be open, but only that it is not open given the facts of the past, which are logically contingent, together with the laws of nature, which are also logically contingent.
Perhaps we can focus the difference as follows. Suppose A is a logically contingent action of mine, the action, say, of phoning Harry. Suppose I perform A. Both fatalist and determinist say that I could not have done otherwise. They agree that my doing A is necessitated. But they disagree about the source of the necessitation.
The fatalist holds that the source is logical: the Law of Excluded Middle together with a certain view of truth and of propositions. The determinist holds that the source is the contingent laws of nature together with the contingent actual past.
A guest post by Peter Lupu. Minor edits and a comment (in blue) by BV.
In an intriguing paper “God and Moral Autonomy”, James Rachels offers what he calls “The Moral Autonomy Argument” against the existence of God. The argument is based on a certain analysis of the concept of worship and its alleged incompatibility with moral autonomy (pp. 9-10; all references are to the Web version). I will first present Rachels’ argument verbatim. Next I will point out that in order for the argument to be valid, additional premises are required. I will then supply the additional premises and recast the argument accordingly in a manner consistent with what I take to be Rachels’ original intent. While the resulting argument is valid, I will argue that it is not sound. Despite its deficiency, however, Rachels’ argument points towards something important. In the final section I will try to flesh out this important element.
Rachels’ Argument Verbatim (p. 10):
“1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.”
Obviously, this argument is not valid. While the two premises have the form of if-then conditionals, the conclusion is not a conditional statement. There is no way of deriving an unconditional statement from conditional premises alone. Clearly, some additional premises are required. Let me now recast the argument in a valid form. I shall take the liberty to reword some of the premises so that their logical form is more apparent.
(A) FirstModified Argument from Moral Autonomy:
1*) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a fitting object of worship;
2*) If worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God is a fitting object of worship;
3*) Worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency.
4*) God does not exist.
Argument (A) is valid. The question is whether it is sound. Rachels maintains that premise (1*) is something like a logical truth. He says: “That God is not to be judged, challenged, defied, or disobeyed is at bottom a truth of logic. To do any of these things is incompatible with taking him as one to be worshiped.” (p. 8). So we are asked to assume that the very concept of God includes the concept of being worthy or fitting of worship, in the sense that being worthy or fitting of worship logically excludes one from being able to judge, challenge, defy, or disobey God. Let us grant this claim for now.
Rachels further claims that premise (3*) is supported by “a long tradition in moral philosophy, from Plato to Kant,…” (p. 9). Such support would go something like this. Worshiping any being worthy of worship requires the worshiper to recognize such a being as having absolute authority. Absolute authority in turn entails an “unqualified claim of obedience.” (p.9). But, no human being, qua autonomous moral agent, can recognize an “unqualified claim of obedience”. Hence, no human being qua autonomous moral agent can recognize any such absolute authority. Therefore, human beings cannot worship God without abandoning their autonomous moral agency.
What about premise (2*)? I think premise (2*) is false. And this fact reveals the underlying problem with Rachels’ argument. For suppose that the antecedent of premise (2*) is true. Does it follow from this fact alone that God is not a fitting object for worship? No such thing follows, for it may still be true that God is a fitting object of worship by creatures that are not autonomous moral agents. Or to put the matter somewhat more precisely: even if we suppose that worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, what follows from this assumption is that God is not a fitting object of worship by a being, qua autonomous moral agent. Of course, God may still be a fitting object of worship by a being as long as that being abandons their autonomy while worshiping.
If this is correct, then premise (2*) is false and, therefore, argument (A) is not sound. Clearly, we need to modify Rachels’ argument once again:
(B) Second Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy:
(1**) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a fitting object of worship by autonomous moral agents;
(2**) If worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God is a fitting object of worship by autonomous moral agents;
(3**) Worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency;
(4**) God does not exist.
Argument (B) is also valid. Is it sound? I believe that a theist may legitimately reject premise (1**). Remember that the necessity in the first premise of each of the above versions of the argument is intended by Rachels to express the claim that the very concept of God logically entails the concept of being worthy of worship, where being worthy (or fitting) of worship logically excludes judging, challenging, defying, or disobeying God. But, clearly, an activity that logically rules out judging, challenging, defying or disobeying another being is an activity that logically requires abandoning the exercise of autonomous moral agency. And a theist may quite legitimately object to such a conception of God. In particular, a theist may consistently maintain that the exercise of worshiping God is not logicallyinconsistent with judging, challenging, defying, or even disobeying God. And if worshiping is not logically inconsistent with any of these activities, then worshiping is not logically inconsistent with maintaining one’s autonomous moral agency. Therefore, a theist can legitimately reject premise (1**). Therefore, the argument cannot be sound.
Comment by BV: It is not clear why the theist could not reject (3**). Why does worship require the abandonment of autonomous moral agency? Granted, if x is God, then God has absolute authority, which includes the right to command and the right to be obeyed. But equally, if if x is indeed God, then God will not command anything immoral; he will not command anything that would not coincide with what we would impose on ourselves if we are acting autonomously. Contrapositively, if x commands anything which is by our moral lights immoral, such as the slaughtering of one's innocent son, then x is not God.
Rachels attempts to meet this objection as follows: "Thus our own judgment that some actions are right and others wrong is logically prior to our recognition of any being as God. The upshot is that we cannot justify the suspension of our own judgment on the grounds that we are deferring to God's command; for if, by our own best judgment, the command is wrong, this gives us good reason to withhold the title "God" from the commander." True, but why should we think that obeying God ever involves suspending our own judgment? Rachels is assuming that there are circumstances in which there is a discrepancy between what God commands and what the creature knows is right. But it is open to the theist to deny that there are ever any such circumstances. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, the theist can say that what Abraham thought was a divine command did not come from God at all. Of course, the Bible portrays the command as coming from God, but the theist is under no obligation to take at face value everything that is in the Bible.
Kant, who was a theist, famously remarked that two things filled him with wonder: "the starry skies above me, and the moral law within me." Now the moral law stands above me as a sensible (phenomenal) being subject to inclinations. It is in one sense outside me as commanding my respect and my submission to its dictates. In respecting the universal moral law do I abandon my autonomy? Not at all. I am truly autonomous only in fulfilling the moral law. So the theist could say that God and the moral law are one, and that worshipping God is like respecting the moral law. Just as it is no injury to my autonomy that the moral law imposes restrictions on my behavior, it is no injury to my autonomy that God issues commands. We needn't follow Rachels in assuming that there is a discrepancy between what God commands and what by our lights (when they are 'shining properly') it is right to do.
If God is a tyrant for whom might makes right, then I grant that worship and autonomy are incompatible. But if the object of worship is a concrete embodiment of the moral law that is in me, the following of which constitutes my autonomy, then worship and autonomy are not incompatible.
I wish now to propose an argument, similar to Rachels, but without the objectionable assumptions accompanying the first premise of Rachels’ argument. Let us stipulate that the term ‘God!’ expresses the concept of a being that is just like the theistic concept of God, except that the following is true of this being:
(!) God! is worthy or fitting of submission; where fitting of submission logicallyexcludes judging, challenging, defying, or disobeying God!.
With the help of (!) I shall now restate Rachels’ argument and prove that God! does not exist, provided autonomous moral agents exist. The argument assumes that at least some autonomous moral agents exist.
(C) Third Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy.
(1!) Necessarily, if God! exists, then God! is a fitting object of submission by autonomous moral agents;
(2!) If submission requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God! is a fitting object of submission by autonomous moral agents;
(3!) Submission requires abandoning autonomous moral agency;
(4!) God! does not exist.
Argument (C) is valid. Is it sound? I think it is. I think that every one of the premises is true and I am willing to defend this claim. Premise (1!) is true by stipulation. Premise (3!) is also true. For submission requires recognizing the absolute authority of another and doing so is not possible while retaining ones autonomy. What about premise (2!)? Premise (2!) might initially appear somewhat strange. But premise (2!) simply states the consequences of our stipulation regarding the concept of God!, when this concept is applied to the requirement that autonomous agents must submit to a being such as God!. I think that given the stipulation expressed by (!), premise (2!) is true. Hence, it is true that God! does not exist.
A theist of course would be correct to vehemently deny that the concept of God! as stipulated is identical to the concept of God in his sense: i.e.,that his concept of God includes (!). And it follows, then, that such a theist must also deny that worship is the same as submission. In particular, such a theist must deny that his God requires submission from autonomous agents. But, then, such a theist must cease to include in the concept of worship elements that belong more properly to the concept of submission.
It also follows that any religion, religious institution, or religious figure that promotes the idea that worshiping a deity requires submission to this deity presupposes that such a deity is God!. But since a being such as God! cannot exist alongside with autonomous moral agents that are required to submit to such a deity, it follows that anyone who promotes such things is promoting the existence of false gods.
The day before yesterday, I sketched the problem mentioned in the title. Today I offer a more rigorous presentation of the problem and examine a solution. The problem can be set forth as an aporetic triad:
1. Every free agent is a libertarianly-free (L-free) agent.
2. God is ontologically simple (where simplicity is an entailment of aseity and vice versa).
3. There are contingent items of divine knowledge that do not depend on divine creation, but do depend on creaturely freedom.
Each limb of the above triad has a strong, though not irresistible, claim on a classical theist's acceptance. As for (1), if God is L-free, as he must be on classical theism, then it is reasonable to maintain that every free agent is L-free. For if 'could have done otherwise' is an essential ingredient in the analysis of 'Agent A freely performs action X,' then it is highly plausible to maintain that this is so whether the agent is God or Socrates. Otherwise, 'free' will mean something different in the two cases. As for (2), some reasons were given earlier for thinking that a theism that understands itself must uphold God's ontological simplicity inasmuch as it is implied by the divine aseity. An example of (3) is Oswald's shooting of Kennedy. The act was freely performed by Oswald, and the proposition that records it is a contingent truth known by God in his omniscience.
But although each of (1)-(3) is plausibly maintained and is typically maintained by theists who uphold the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS), they cannot all be true. Therein resides the problem. Any two limbs imply the negation of the third. Thus: (1) & (3) --> ~(2); (1) & (2) --> ~(3); (2) & (3) --> ~(1).
To illustrate, let us consider how (1) and (3), taken together, entail the negation of (2). Being omniscient, God knows that Oswald freely chose to kill Kennedy. But Oswald's L-freedom precludes us from saying that God's knowledge of this contingent fact depends solely on the divine will. For it also depends on Oswald's L-free authorship of his evil deed, an authorship that God cannot prevent or override once he has created L-free agents. But this is inconsistent with the divine aseity. For to say that God is a se is to say that God is not dependent on anything distinct from himself. But God has the the property of being such that he knows that Oswald freely chose to kill Kennedy, and his having this property depends on something outside of God's control, namely, Oswald's L-free choice. In this way the divine aseity is compromised, and with it the divine simplicity.
It seems, then, that our aporetic triad is an inconsistent triad. The problem it represents can be solved by denying either (1) or (2) or (3). Since (3) cannot be plausibly denied, this leaves (1) and (2). Some will deny the divine simplicity. But an upholder of the divine simplicity has the option of denying (1) and maintaining that, while God is L-free, creaturely agents are free only in a compatibilist sense. If creaturely agents are C-free, but not L-free, then Oswald could not have done otherwise, and it is possible for the upholder of divine simplicity to say that that Oswald's C-free choice is no more a threat to the divine aseity than the fact that God knows the contingent truth that creaturely agents exist. The latter is not a threat to the divine aseity because the existence of creaturely agents derives from God in a way that Oswald's L-free choice does not derive from God.
See Jeffrey E. Brower, Simplicity and Aseity, for this sort of solution. I cannot see that the solution is entirely satisfactory, but it is worth considering.
(I) In a post dated June 6, 2009 Philoponus presented the Trojan Horse Argument (THA) against thre Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) according to which a person is morally responsible for what he as done only if he could have done otherwise. He says:
(A) “So, if we say a agent shall be responsible for doing x only if conditions a and b and c obtain, and it turns out that c cannot obtain, or we can never ascertain or be sure that c obtains, we have rendered it impossible ever to hold someone responsible for doing x. Yes? The PAP is a Trojan Horse if we attach it to moral responsibility.”
Phil then maintains that
(B) “The criminal law wisely and steadfastly refuses to allow a Trojan Horse like the PAP into the criminal codes, … Think about what would happen if a PAP clause—“he could have done/chosen otherwise”-- became a material element of a criminal charge. Then the prosecution would have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator could have acted/chosen otherwise.”
In this post I shall examine Phil’s THA with respect to both claims (A) and (B).
Leibniz's Theodicy consists of two parts, the first on faith and reason, the second on the freedom of man in the origin of evil. I am trying to understand paragraph #37 (p. 144 of the Huggard translation):
. . it follows not that what is foreseen is necessary, for necessary truth is that whereof the contrary is impossible or implies contradiction. Now this truth which states that I shall write tomorrow is not of that nature, it is not necessary. Yet supposing that God foresees it, it is necessary that it come to pass; that is, the consequence is necessary, namely, that it exist, since it has been foreseen; for God is infallible. This is what is termed a hypothetical necessity. But our concern is not this necessity: it is an absolute necessity that is required, to be able to say that an action is necessary, that it is not contingent, that it is not the effect of a free choice.
Clearly, the proposition P expressed by 'BV writes on 13 June 2009' is logically contingent. There is no logical necessity that I write tomorrow or on any day. Both my writing tomorrow and my not writing tomorrow are logically possible. But given that God foreknows that P, P must be true. That is,
1. Necessarily (if God foreknows that P, then P is true).
We note that the necessity in (1) attaches to the conditional, not to its consequent. This is a case, then, of necessitas consequentiae, not of necessitas consequentiis. In Leibniz's jargon, (1) is a case of hypothetical necessity as opposed to absolute necessity. The consequence is necessary, not the consequent. From (1) one cannot infer
2. If God foreknows that P, then necessarily P is true.
So far, so good. If a proposition is known, by God or by anyone, then it must be true; but that is consistent with saying that the proposition known is contingently true. Given that I know that I am blogging, then I must be blogging; but that is not to say that I am necessarily blogging: I might not have been blogging now.
What I don't understand, though, is the last sentence in the passage quoted. The last sentence strikes me as false. Leibniz seems not to appreciate that if a contingent state of affairs is necessitated by something other than the agent, then there is a prima facie difficulty about reconciling it with freedom of choice. The source of necessitation might be divine foreknowledge (theological fatalism), or the laws of logic (logical fatalism), or the past and the laws of nature (causal determinism). No matter what the source of necessitation, one cannot dissolve the problem of reconciling free will and the necessitation of the act willed simply by pointing out the difference between hypothetical and absolute necessity.
In other words, Leibniz appears to be taxing the fatalist and the determinist with a sophomoric error, namely, that of confusing (1) and (2) above. But no sophisticated fatalist or determinist need make that error. It is clear that my blogging now is a logically contingent state of affairs. But if determinism is true, then it is not nomologically possible that I be doing anything other than blogging now: past events under the aegis of the laws of nature necessitate my blogging now. How then can my blogging now be free? What Leibniz fails to see is that simply distinguishing the necessity of the consequence from the necessity of the consequent does nothing to answer the question.
You make the statement, "An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there is no consciousness there are no illusions either." I know this logic is not unique to you, as Descartes used similar reasoning to conclude that he exists. I firmly believe that free will is not an illusion, but I'm having trouble convincing myself of this particular argument.
As a computer programmer, I can write a program that tries to comprehend things in its environment (identifies animals from images, for example). It might come across a particularly tricky image, and get the wrong answer. I could then say that the program was tricked by an illusion. But, the program does not have consciousness.
Here again is how Harry Frankfurt formulates the principle of alternate possibilities in his 1969 J. Phil. article:
PAP. A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.
It is now time to put 'could have done otherwise' under our logico-linguistic microscopes. The phrase is ambiguous. On one reading, 'could' is the past indicative of 'can' where 'can' signifies ability: If I can do X, then I am able to do X. Accordingly, if I could have done otherwise, then I was able to do otherwise. Suppose I failed to lock the door last night. Then to say that I could have done otherwise is to say that I was able to lock the door last night. So, on the first reading, 'could have done otherwise' means 'was able to do otherwise.'
I am an incompatibilist about moral responsibility. That is, I maintain that causal determinism and moral responsibility are logically incompatible. (Two propositions p, q are logically incompatible just in case they cannot both be true. Hence, logically incompatible propositions are logical contraries, not contradictories.) Here is an argument for incompatibilism:
P1. Causal determinism rules out alternative possibilities. For in a causally deterministic world W there is exactly one nomologically possible future at any time t given the laws of nature and the events that have transpired prior to t in W.
P2. Moral responsibility requires alternative possibilities (e.g., the ability to decide, choose, intend otherwise.)
C. Causal determinism rules out (is incompatible with) moral responsibility.
We got bogged down in an earlier thread, so let's try a different tack. The following discussion draws upon Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford 2005, pp. 87-88.
In his seminal 1969 J. Phil. article, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility," Harry Frankfurt enunciates what he calls "the principle of alternate possibilities," (PAP) namely, "a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise." Frankfurt goes on to argue that PAP is false because there are conceivable scenarios in which an agent is morally responsible despite his inability to do otherwise.
1) Frankfurt-style examples are intended to be counterexamples to PAP.
PAP: A person S is morally responsible for intentionally doing X at t only if S can intentionally refrain from doing X at t.
BV: The following formulation better captures what Frankfurt actually says in his 1969 J. Phil. article, namely, "a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise."
PAP*: A person S is morally responsible for intentionally doing X at t only if (i) S intentionally does X at time t, and (ii) S could have intentionally refrained from doing X at t.
Assumption: I assume that intentionally refraining from doing X is identical to intentionally doing some Y, where Y is not identical to X.
BV: Do you need this assumption? The assumption appears false. If I refrain from doing one thing, it doesn't follow that I do some other thing: I could do nothing at all. If I refrain from smoking a cigarette during the next ten minutes, it does not follow that I do something else during that period. I take it that not-doing-X is not an action. It is an action-omission. If 'X' and 'Y' range over action-types, then not-doing-X is not identical to doing-some-Y.
2) A Frankfurt-style example is going to be a genuine counterexample to PAP just in case it entails the antecedent of PAP as well as the negation of its consequent: i.e.,
(I) S is morally responsible for doing X at t; (II) It is not the case that S can intentionally refrain from doing X at t.
BV: Note that (II') corresponding to PAP* is
(II') Either it is not the case that S intentionally does X at t, or it is not the case that S could have intentionally refrained from doing X at t.
3) The following are two claims I shall prove:
Claim 1: Any Frankfurt-style example that is interpreted to entail (I) and (II) is inconsistent: i.e., it also entails the negation of either (I) or (II).
Claim 2: Any Frankfurt-style example that is interpreted as entailing (II*) instead of (II) is consistent but is not a counterexample to PAP.
(II*) It is not the case that S can behave in a manner other than X at t.
But, (II*) is not the negation of the consequent of PAP. Hence, (I) and (II*) do not refute PAP. Therefore, standard Frankfurt-style examples are either inconsistent or they are not genuine counterexamples to PAP.
4) Suppose a Frankfurt-style example (choose your favorite example) entails (I) and (II). 4.1) Then such an example includes a backup mechanism that is capable of directly causing S to do X at t in the event S intentionally refrains from doing X at t. But the very existence of such a backup mechanism entails
(III) S can intentionally refrain from doing X at t.
Because if (III) were false and S could not intentionally refrain from doing X at t, then there would be no need for a backup mechanism. 4.2) (II) and (III) are contradictories. 4.3) Therefore, the assumption stated in (4) must be false. 4.4) This proves Claim 1 above.
BV: I agree that (II) and (III) are contradictories. But (II') and (III) are not contradictories. So even if you succeed in refuting your PAP, you haven't refuted Frankfurt's PAP*. If I haven't blundered, it seems that the debate now shifts to what exactly the Principle of Alternate Possibilities is.
5) Suppose that a Frankfurt-style example entails (I) and (II*). 5.1) As before, such an example entails (III) as well. But, now, notice that as long as we maintain a sharp distinction between behavior and action, (II*) and (III) are perfectly consistent. 5.3) Therefore, the supposition stated in (5) does not lead to a contradiction. Frankfurt-style examples that entail (I), (II*), and (III) are perfectly consistent. 5.4) But notice that none of these propositions; i.e., (I), (II*), and (III) contradict the consequent of PAP. Therefore, consistent Frankfurt-style examples are not counterexamples to PAP. This proves Claim 2.
6) Since this holds for any arbitrary Frankfurt-style example, we can state the following:
(*) Every Frankfurt-style example is either inconsistent or it is not a counterexamples to PAP.
7) The only potentially vulnerable move that I can see in this argument is the claim that the existence of a backup mechanism entails (III): S can intentionally refrain from doing X at t. 7.1) But, how can the proponents of Frankfurt-style examples deny such an entailment? The very point of Frankfurt-style examples is that the existence of such a backup mechanism (however it is described) is feasible and that its sole purpose is to insure that in the event S intentionally refrains from doing X at t, then the backup mechanism induces S to do X at t. Thus, the rationale of such a backup mechanism presupposes that S can intentionally refrain from doing X at t; but this just is (III). Hence, any Frankfurt-style example entails (III).
William James famously characterized the true as the good in the way of belief. But is knowledge of the truth in every case life-enhancing? Does knowing the truth always contribute to human flourishing? Or is it rather the case that to live well with ourselves and others, to be happy, to flourish, requires the maintenance of certain life-enhancing illusions? Nietzsche raised these questions and he may have been the first to raise them. They are hard to dismiss.
Consider libertarian free will (LFW). It is a difficult notion. Many find it incoherent. Suppose it is. Then, whether or not determinism is true, LFW cannot exist. Compatibilist construals of free will, however, do not seem to supply an adequate notion of moral responsibility. Suppose this is so, and that only LFW supplies an adequate notion of moral responsibility.
First the argument in nuce, then a detailed explanation.
P1. I am morally responsible for at least some of my actions and omissions. P2. I cannot be morally responsible for an action or omission unless I am libertarianly free with respect to that action or omission. Therefore C. I am libertarianly free with respect to at least some of my actions and omissions.
Backpacking solo in California's Sierra Nevada range some years ago, I had occasion to exult: "I'm free!" What did I mean?
I meant that I was doing what I wanted to do as I wanted to do it. I was not subject to any external or internal impediments, or any external or internal compulsions. An example of an external impediment would be a snowstorm or an uncooperative companion, while an example of an internal impediment would be acrophobia. An example of external compulsion would be being forced at gunpoint to hike. And if I suffered from cacoethes ambulandi, a pathological itch to ramble, a syndrome I have just invented, then that would count as an internal compulsion. But unencumbered as I was by any such impediments or compulsions, I was doing what I willed (wanted, desired, chose, . . .).
In a recent article, Libet writes: "it is only the final ‘act now’ process that produces the voluntary act. That ‘act now’ process begins in the brain about 550 msec before the act, and it begins unconsciously" (2001, p. 61).10 "There is," he says, "an unconscious gap of about 400 msec between the onset of the cerebral process and when the person becomes consciously aware of his/her decision or wish or intention to act." (Incidentally, a page later, he identifies what the agent becomes aware of as "the intention/wish/urge to act" [p. 62].) Libet adds: "If the ‘act now’ process is initiated unconsciously, then conscious free will is not doing it."
I have already explained that Libet has not shown that a decision to flex is made or an intention to flex acquired at -550 ms. But even if the intention emerges much later, that is compatible with an "act now" process having begun at -550 ms. One might say that "the ‘act now’ process" in Libet’s spontaneous subjects begins with the formation or acquisition of a proximal intention to flex, much closer to the onset of muscle motion than -550 ms, or that it begins earlier, with the beginning of a process that issues in the intention.11 We can be flexible about that (just as we can be flexible about whether the process of my baking my frozen pizza began when I turned my oven on to pre-heat it, when I opened the oven door five minutes later to put the pizza in, when I placed the pizza on the center rack, or at some other time). Suppose we say that "the ‘act now’ process" begins with the unconscious emergence of an urge to flex – or with a pretty reliable relatively proximal causal contributor to urges to flex – at about -550 ms and that the urge plays a significant role in producing a proximal intention to flex many milliseconds later. We can then agree with Libet that, given that the "process is initiated unconsciously, . . . conscious free will is not doing it" – that is, is not initiating "the ‘act now’ process." But who would have thought that conscious free will has the job of producing urges? In the philosophical literature, free will’s primary locus of operation is typically identified as deciding (or choosing); and for all Libet has shown, if his subjects decide (or choose) to flex "now," they do so consciously.
What Libet et al. want to show is that the notion that conscious willing plays a genuine role in the etiology of a behavior such as flexing a finger is illusory. Their evidence for this is that the process in the brain that initiates the action begins some 550 milliseconds before the action and is unconscious. Only 400 msecs later does the subject become aware of his wish or urge or intention or decision to act. This is supposed to show that the conscious intention is not causally efficacious and that conscious will is an illusion.
Mele rebuts this argument by showing that it trades on a confusion of decisions/intentions on the one hand and wishes and urges on the other. To want to do X is not the same as to decide to do X. Phil may want another Fat Tire Ale but decide not to drink another because he has already decimated Bill's supply and doesn't want to presume on his host. So even if the wanting to do action A begins in the brain a half a second before the doing of A, and is unconscious, it doesn't follow that the decision to do A begins in the brain a half second before the doing of A and is unconscious. Free will is displayed in decisions and choosings, not in wants and urges.
Basically, what Mele does quite skillfully in this article is show the indispensability of accurate conceptual analysis and phenomenology for the proper interpretation of empirical findings. The real illusion here is the supposition that the empirical findings of neuroscience can by themselves shed any light.
Near the end of Thursday night's symposium, Philoponus, animated but not rendered irrational by the prodigious quantity of Fat Tire Ale he had consumed, stated that he is really only interested in practical and existential topics in philosophy as opposed to theoretical ones. He is concerned solely with questions on the order of: How should we live? What ought we do? But he also took a hard determinist line on the problem of free will, based on his study of recent neuroscience. He tells me he has been reading Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will. It occurred to me the next morning that there is a certain tension between these two Philoponian commitments.
Is the will free or determined? This is a crude way of posing the traditional problem of free will and determinism. But the traditional problem presupposes that free will and determinism are incompatible. Since this cannot be legitimately presupposed, the fundamental problem is the compatibility problem: Are free will and determinism compatible or incompatible?
I view them as incompatible, and, influenced by Kant, I see compatibilism as a 'shabby evasion' of the underlying difficulty. But since one cannot shame a philosophical position out of existence, pace Daniel Dennett, I had better present an argument. An argument one finds in the literature is the Consequence Argument. (See for example Peter van Inwagen's An Essay on Free Will.) Here is a version of it that draws upon van Inwagen and also this discussion by Tomis Kapitan.
Suppose A and B are incompatible but possible courses of action, and I am deliberating as to whether I should do A or B. (Should I continue with this blogging business, or devote more time to less ephemeral pursuits?) Deliberating, I have the sense that it is up to me what happens. I have the sense that it is not the case that events prior to my birth, together with the laws of nature, necessitate that I do what I end up doing. Seriously deliberating, I presuppose the falsity of determinism. Determinism is the thesis that, given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. When I seriously deliberate, however, my deliberation behavior manifests the belief that there is more than one possible future, and that it is up to me which of these possible futures becomes actual. There is the possible future in which I hike tomorrow morning and blog in the afternoon and the equipossible future in which I blog tomorrow morning and hike in the afternoon. And which becomes actual depends on me.
Determinism is the view that whatever happens is determined by antecedent conditions under the aegis of the laws of nature. Equivalently, past facts, together with the laws of nature, entail all future facts. It follows that facts before one's birth, via the laws of nature, necessitate what one does now. The necessitation here is causal, not logical. Could a determinist have a use for 'could have done otherwise'? Yes, if he gives the phrase a weak or conditional interpretation. No, if he gives it a strong or unconditional interpretation.
WEAK READING. Agent A could have done otherwise than action X =df A would have done other than X had A had a sufficiently strong desire to do other than X (or had a sufficiently strong desire together with a different set of background beliefs, etc.)
Example. A man insults me and I insult him back. Could I have "turned the other cheek" and done otherwise? Yes, under conditions like the following. Had I been a better man, I would have let the insult pass unanswered. If I had not perceived the insult, I would not have answered it. If I had had a desire to impress a bystander with how forebearing I am, I would have remained silent. And so on.
STRONG READING. Agent A could have done other than X =df A could have done other than X even if every factor prior to X had been the same.
I will use 'could have done otherwise' only in the STRONG sense. This will allow me to define libertarian freedom (L-freedom) in terms of 'could have done otherwise': An agent A is L-free in respect of action X =df (i) A performs X; (ii) A could have done otherwise. It is clear that L-freedom is incompatible with determinism. For if I am L-free in respect of just one action, then it is not the case that whatever happens is causally necessitated by antecedent conditions via the laws of nature.
The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for "freedom of the will" in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one's actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Muenchhausen's audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.
It is easy to be seduced by the beauty and energy of Nietzsche's prose into thinking that he is talking sense when he is not. The above excerpt is a case in point. Let's take a long hard logical squint at it.