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Sunday, May 03, 2009


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The things which most interest us about ourselves follow from and depend upon the reality of freedom of the will. If we are not free, then we cannot think individual thoughts, and we cannot reason from thought to thought, and we cannot possess knowledge, and we cannot extend our knowledge, and we cannot know truth, and so on.

"... To live is to be an agent, and to be an agent is to be a free agent."

Yes, and the "free" is redundant, as it is in the phrase "free-will;" a 'will' which is totally unfree is no will at all.

Even the most convinced determinists are unable to live their lives as if they don't make choices. In their more metaphysical moments they might conclude, for whatever reason, that free will is impossible. But once they step back into the world, the primal quality of free will reasserts itself, completely and unavoidably. Though it's possible to promote determinism, and even on some level to believe it, it's impossible to adopt it existentially. As Poincare once said: "no determinist argues deterministically". Just so.

I wish and I wish that there was a Cartesian (cogito-style) solution here. “I deliberate, therefore my will is free.” “I believe fervently in the freedom of my will, therefore I am free.” “I am or do x, therefore I must be free.” Nope. Not convinced, not even a little bit.

The illusion of free will remains a “hot” topic in experimental psychology. I commend to you all Dan Wegner’s book The Illusion of Free Will. What the psychologists are worried about is not whether we deliberate and choose—we plainly do--but whether these deliberations have anything to do with directing the actions we take. Ben Libet first raised the embarrassment of sequence. Subjects, asked to report when they decide to do something, are found to already begun to perform that action neurologically at some point earlier ( perhaps 150-200 milisecs earlier). It’s as if we sense ourselves beginning to act and immediately confabulate an explanation for that action. “Oh yes, I choose to do that!” Our brains are very good at confabulating needed explanations. Dress a Korsakov’s patient like a physician, leave him alone at a doctor’s desk, and come back in 10 secs and ask him who he is. He sees how he is dressed and where he is and immediately confabulates a wonderful, detailed medical biography to fill in for his absent memories. The suggestion is that many of our “free choices” are confabulations that the pre-frontal cortex comes up as it senses us beginning to act for reasons that are unknown but for we need to have some kind of reassuring explanation.

I believe the term that metaphysicians like is epiphenomema. Think of our deliberations and choices as epiphenomena that arise during or shortly after the real fully deterministic decision process. They provide a false assurance that we really have any deliberative control over the process, but this illusion or confabulation is psychologically adaptive for obvious reasons.

Can we cast off the illusion of free will and live instead an authentic existence as beings condemned to be UNfree? I don’t know. Dare we try? Suppose I get up in the morning and think: everything that will happen today is already foreordained. I will deliberate and makes choices, but those too are all foreordained and can change nothing. What is the effect of this kind of thinking? Does it frighten or calm me? Does it discourage or reassure me? I'm not sure.

The rise of physicalism seems to have moved to the fore the aspect of the problem of free will that concerns human beings considered as physical systems and as such physically determined. Yet I often find myself dwelling more on the aspect of the problem that concerns not our physical or non-physical constitution but rather our psychology of choice.

It's the old Socratic problem of free will, namely the problem of how we can make a free choice if we always choose in accordance with what we evaluate as being the best and if that evaluation itself is something performed by the intellect not under our control. My intellect receives certain input and concludes that it is faced with several options. Like an automated computer, it delivers output stating which of the options is best (or most desirable or however it ought to be put). Can I but choose in accordance with this result? If I attempt to choose contrary to the deliverances of my intellect, will it only be because my intellect has sneakily performed another evaluation about what is best and concluded that it would be best to choose contrary to its previous conclusion? In this way is it impossible for my will to ever get "behind" my intellect?

I think the determinist is going to have to bite the bullet and say that if diliberation presupposes free will, diliberation is also an illusion. But to respond to Philoponus, the fact that there are psychological processes that kick into action before I'm conscious of having made a choice doesn't show that freedom is an illusion. I think he has in mind a very old school idea of freedom (the libertarian will, I think it's called) by which the will must be totally apart from all other kinds of causation in the universe. Clearly, no sophisticated advocate of genuine free will is going to hold to that today.

By the way, Bill, Thomas Reid makes a point very similar to the one you are making in Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind. I'm about halfway through it now and I'm finding him a delightful alternative to Hume.

If the rise of physicalism has had any noticeable effect on discussions of determinism, it's to undermine the notion of universal causality, and with it, the best developed versions of determinism. It matters not whether you are a materialist, an idealist, a dualist, a monist, ... If causality is universal, and if causes necessitate (i.e., determine) their effects, you're stuck with classical determinisn.

"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."

I can't see how anything interesting about free will follows. No doubt there is a world w in which a counterpart of yours is blogging the same words, and is not free. No doubt there is another world w' in which another counterpart is blogging the same words and is free (either of these counterparts might well be you). Need things be phenomenologically different for either of them. I've been given no reason why, and I see none.


I don't think you understand the argument. It is retorsive in structure. It begins with a fact, one that cannot be denied, namely, that we deliberate. Now the fact of deliberation presupposes (and thus entails) a certain belief on the part of the deliberator, the belief that the future is in part 'up to him.' This belief is equivalent to the belief that determinism is false. Affirmation of the truth of determinism is therefore performatively inconsistent with the fact of deliberation: as long as one does not evade the fact of one's being an agent who deliberates, one cannot affirm determinism. Indeed determinism seems to rely essentially on this very evasion. (Holy moly, I'm starting to sound a bit like Ayn Rand!)

You might respond that the belief that deliberation is efficacious is illusory: whenever one sincerely deliberates one is in the grip of an illusory belief. But then my considerations above anent 'illusory' kick in: one is playing false and loose with the word. Saying that the belief in question is illusory is on a par with saying that consciousness is an illusion.

The neuroscience stuff is just so much scientistic tripe. It is on a level with the popular stuff one reads in Scientific American about certain thoughts and emotions being debunked when the relevant regions of the brain are mapped. It doesn't occur to these writers that if an experience can be debunked by mapping neural correlates, then that is true of every type of experience including the experiencings and thinkings of the neuroscientist.

>>Subjects, asked to report when they decide to do something, are found to [have] already begun to perform that action neurologically at some point earlier ( perhaps 150-200 milisecs earlier). It’s as if we sense ourselves beginning to act and immediately confabulate an explanation for that action.<<

You speak of an action. But note that an action is an action of an agent. And so, strictly speaking, the action cannot have begun before the decision of an agent. No doubt there are occurrences in the brain prior to the decision, or rather, prior to the subject's reporting of the decision. But what justifies the identification of these prior occurrences as parts of the action as opposed to background events necessary for there to be an action?

We should also distinguish the subject's report of the decision -- which requires the subject's reflective awareness of the decision -- from the decision itself which can occur prereflectively. Having made this distinction, I can account for the experimental finding without taking it to imply that free will is an illusion. From the fact, if it is a fact, that the action begins prior to the subject's REPORT of the decision, it does not follow that the action begins earlier than the agent's decision.

You say you don't know whether we can cast off the illusion of free will if illusion it be. Well, I know that I can't. I have tried. That was back in my determinist phase in the 80's under the influence of Schopenhauer. I find that it is impossible for me to go on 'automatic.' I cannot deny my nature: being free is constitutive of being human. If naturalism cannot find a place for free will, then so much the worse for naturalism. Given a choice between the plain fact of the practical undeniablity of free will and the scientisic speculations of some neuroscientists, I'll opt for the former. And note that that too is a free decision! It is part and parcel of our predicament that we are not only free to decide what we will do and how we will live but also what (within certain limits) we will believe. With this I circle back to the old topic of doxastic voluntarism.

Thanks for the stimulating comments.

Philoponus favourably mentioned Wegner's book "The Illusion of Conscious Will", and commends us all to read it. Well, I would counter-commend E.J. Lowe's recent book, "Personal Agency" (OUP 2008), which directly addresses, and to my mind refutes, the remarkably weak reasoning that leads Wegner to conclude that conscious will is illusory. At risk of seeming lazy, which I am anyway, I'll just quote the relevant (pretty long) passage from Lowe in full (pp. 83-84):

"Such empirical data allegedly show that human actions and human experiences of volition are 'doubly dissociable': someone can be acting in a certain way even though he or she has no experience of exercising their will to act in that way, and someone can have the experience of exercising their will in a certain way even though they are not in fact acting in that way. Some of the actual examples of such cases can be intriguing and unsettling, but really it is not at all surprising that they can occur. They go no way at all toward showing that, even in normal circumstances, our volitions do not really cause the physical actions that we intend to cause when we have the experience of exercising our will. If volitions are causes of physical actions, then of course it must be possible to have a volition without a corresponding physical action, or a physical action without a corresponding volition--at least, on the standard assumption that causes and effects are logically independent of one another. In fact, one of the reasons why some philosophers are sceptical about the very existence of volitions is that they think volitions couldn't be logically independent of actions in the way they would be required to be if they were causes of actions: this is the basis of the famous 'logical connection' argument against volitions. It is ironic, then, that these philosophers dismiss the existence of volitions on the grounds that volitions and actions couldn't 'come apart' as they would have to for the former to be causes of the latter, while the psychologists appeal to the fact that volitions and actions can come apart to support their view that volitions are not causes of actions. The right thing to say, it seems to me, is that volitions and actions can indeed 'come apart' and that is why the former are eligible as causes of the latter."

Dear Miss Rand,

Happy to see you back, as dogmatic as ever. :)

You may be right here, but may we press the issue just a little further? Deliberation makes no sense, that neglected Ordinary Language philosopher Aristotle says, when we are certain that something is going to occur. If we are certain something is going to occur, then there are no alternatives in play, and nothing to deliberate about.

If a deterministic view is correct, I have one and only one possible future awaiting me. But I don’t know what that future is. I am certain of almost nothing in my future. All that I do foresee from my benighted perspective is a set of (for-all-I-know) possible futures.

Deliberation, as Aristotle tells us, is first and foremost a kind of calculation (logismos). I investigate the futures that for all I know may occur, and I evaluate them in terms of how beneficial or harmful I believe they will be to be. In contemporary term, I investigate them with aim of the ranking them in terms of their utility(-ies). I deliberate well—the virtue is called euboulia—when I consistently arrive at what I believe is my best option, given the set of uncertainties I believe I face.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I see nothing in this exercise of calculation over uncertainties that presupposes the fact, or even the belief, that my future is up to me. That remains an additional belief at this point, a belief I may embrace or decline. I may choose to believe that the option I have selected can then have some causal role in bringing about an as yet undetermined future. If I am a determinist, I must decline this additional belief. But that belief was not the reason a determinist deliberated in the first place. He, and we all, deliberate because we need to understand as much as can about what is likely to happen to us, and, as events unfold, how good or bad things are for us. Deliberation is psychologically necessary for such a fearful, future-blind creature as we are.

People who believe their deliberations help to create an as yet undetermined future may just be wrong. All this talk about illusions and delusions is really beside the point. If determinism is right, you are just wrong in believing your choices create an undetermined future.

I respect anyone’s personal commitment to free will, but I worry when I hear a phrase “the practical undeniability of free will”. I hear old David Hume saying “Wait a minute. We see no causation here. We don’t even infer it on suitable grounds. We are just psychologically disposed to project it.” We have no idea, do we, how our deliberation are supposed to cause actions? Sometimes they seem to correlate well, but then the correlation comes apart with all sorts of unexplained akratic breakdowns. It’s all very confusing and unclear.

It seems the problem in these discussions is determinism versus freedom. Yet the real troubling issue - both for more phenomenological approaches as well as 3rd person scientific ones - is distinguishing freedom as indeterminism from luck as indeterminism. Mele has a rather compelling argument (albeit not well written) that it's impossible to distinguish the two.

Imagine, if you will, two worlds that are completely identical in all of their particulars, except for one: in world A, there exists free will; in world B, everything is deterministic, but the inhabitants believe that they have free will, and deliberate accordingly.

Would it be possible for an outsider to distinguish between these two worlds?

Furthermore: what would it matter, if one could? What, if anything, is really at stake?

Dear Brodie,

I recommend Wegner's book to the attention of the Mavericks for the clarity of its discussion of these issues from a scientific viewpoint. Science matters. I do not agree with many of Wegner's conclusions. Thank you for the reference to Lowe's book.


If A and B are alike in all respects except that in A there is free will, then determinism holds in both worlds. But how can world A be such that there is libertarian free will in it and also determinism?

It is not clear what you want us to imagine.

Hi Bill,

>>It begins with a fact, one that cannot be denied, namely, that we deliberate. Now the fact of deliberation presupposes (and thus entails) a certain belief on the part of the deliberator, the belief that the future is in part 'up to him.' This belief is equivalent to the belief that determinism is false.<<

The "up to him" is vague and isn't "equivalent" to the belief that "determinism is false," as far as I can tell. Fischer, for one, has spelled out various sorts of "control" (and other conditions) that allow the future to be "in part up to" the agent. Furthermore, there are arguments that libertarianism doesn't allow the kind of control needed for freedom. So, some have even claimed that the belief that the future is in part "up to him" is "equivalent to the belief that" libertarianism is false and determinism is true.

Bill, I think what Michael is asking is: if this world *were* deterministic, and your deliberations just a link of an antecedent causal chain, how would you be able to tell? Are you confident you could "feel" the difference?

One thing that I think is missed here is that determinism or no, our deliberations do matter: if, after deliberating, I decide to do X instead of Y, I will indeed do X instead of Y, and vice-versa. The only difference that determinism would make is that the deliberative steps themselves would be fixed by the initial conditions, in ways that would be very hard to detect and effectively impossible to predict.

But even under such determinism, the deliberation is yours in the important sense that it is only inside *you* that all the threads come together: your goals, your wisdom, dispositions, aversions, principles, past experience, etc. And it is almost certainly the case that such is the complexity and "algorithmic incompressibility" of of the system that no agent could predict the outcome without actually running the deliberation itself.

Honestly, do you really think a life that is fully deterministic at the microscopic level would be subjectively distinguishable from a "free" one? It seems to me more like the difference between random and "pseudo-random" numbers; nobody just looking at the stream of numbers would be able to tell which was which.

I have an argument against precisely what philosophus is speaking of. The argument is much better put elsewhere but here I can hint at it in a single paragraph.
Let us say knowledge is justified true beliefe. let us say all beliefs are determined. Let us say they were determined from the outset of the universe. Let us say I have belief A and philosophus has belief B but we both cannot be correct. If my beliefs are determined and so are philosophus' then how could one of us ever have a justification for our belief that would allow us to say the other is wrong?
To put it a little more precisely how could a determined belief be justified when the reason the belief is believed is that its being believed was determined. Thus the reason that all beliefs are believed is exactly the same: namely that they are determined to be believed.
Now one might say that the causes in each case might be different, and this may well be the case. However, that does not change the fact that the answer for every question "why do you believe that?" is in every case "I must." If one wishes to say his beliefs are more accurate than anothers one must argue that he was lucky enough to wind us in the correct causal nexus such that he now has correct beliefs. However, the correctness of that belief is dependant on one first assuming one wound up in the correct causal nexus.
Thus the only way for a determinist to assume he is right and the free will person is wrong is to merely assume that he was lucky enought to end up in the right causal nexus. And that is weak suase my friends.

Hello Bill,

I agree that freedom of the will is no illusion. But it's a term that applies only to the first person subjective world. Determinism (of particles and fields) on the other hand, seems to apply only to the third person objective world. The problem, as you say, is to integrate the two points of view, in particular, to 'live the truth' of determinism in one's own life. My question is in what way is this any harder than accepting the other apparent conflicts between the two views? For example, our subjective world is filled with colour yet physics tells us that the fundamental parts of material things have no colour at all. And material things are subjectively solid and unyielding yet physics says they are mostly empty space.

This suggests to me that we can avoid the retorsive force of your argument by taking care not to import terms from one view into the other. For example, you say "To live and be human is not merely to manifest a belief, but an all-pervasive ground-conviction, of the falsity of determinism." But this is to import a third person term into the first person world. Analogously, asking what colour atoms are is to import a first person term into the third person world. Rather than trying to identify the two worlds, so that the same terms can be applied to both, perhaps we have to stop at mere correlations. For the future to be in part up to me must mean that my acts conform with my desires and beliefs. If the latter correlate with material structures or processes within my brain, then it may well be the determinism of the material world that guarantees this conformance.

I must say I rather like the challenge Bill has set us here. Determinists can’t deliberate, he suggests, and since we do deliberate,… I confess I’ve never heard this kind of argument for Free Will before.

Must a determinist abandon the sham ritual of “deliberating”? Bill says “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.'” On pain of self-contradiction, determinists must stop deliberating if deliberation forces an indeterminist view of the future on them. So, must we believe we are in a position to create an as yet undetermined future as we deliberate and choose?

I sit here deliberating and planning my day. I figure out that it’s best if I concern myself with A, B, and C today. That’s my plan then. But I also think, this day is already completely fore-ordained. It is already completely determined whether I will do A, B and C. Of course from my perspective I have no idea whether I will actually accomplish A, B and C. I predict that I will because I have deliberated and identified these things as the best things for me to do. More often than not, I end up doing what is I believe is best for me. I may also of course get nowhere near A, B and C today, because the world has other plans for me.

I could make no plans for today and just drift into the uncertainties of the day, as if I were sitting, bored and detached, watching a movie of my life. A passive “I wonder what I will be doing at noon?” instead of “I plan to be writing at noon.” The problem is that a drifting, planless day is very distressing. Psychologically I need some guide and roadmap to focus on, even if that guide proves wildly wrong. I could end up at the hospital at noon with a rattlesnake bite for all I know, but I need a plan for the day.

I personally am not attracted to determinism, and I do not approach my day from the perspective of someone acting out a fore-ordained script, but I’m trying to take up Bill’s challenge about the impossibility of deliberating if you take a fatalistic, deterministic view of the future. Since we don’t know what will happen, it seems to me to make sense to deliberate over the uncertainities and try to identify what would be best to do. What will happen will happen, I can do nothing to alter that, but I can at least try to figure out and choose to do what is best.

You all must tell me whether this makes sense to you. It seems to but I am not sure.

Hi Phil,

I think it is a confusion to suppose that determinism renders it impossible for us to deliberate: as I mentioned above, even under determinism our deliberation is still part of the causal chain that determines our future actions. The only difference, and I think it is a subjectively imperceptible one, is whether the various deliberative steps themselves would be fixed by the initial conditions (initial conditions that still include, very importantly, all the things we would *want* our deliberation to take into account: our wishes, goals, dispositions, knowledge, opinions, wisdom, etc - in other words, the entirety of the self we have created throughout our entire history prior to the present act of deliberation). But it is still the case, determinism or no, that if our deliberation results in a decision to do X we will do X, and if it ends in a decision to do Y we will do Y.

Saying that determinism make deliberation impossible seems to me like saying that determinism makes, say, *swallowing* impossible, "because it is already determined that either the food will end up in my stomach or it won't".

Our deliberation, whether its operation is determined at the microlevel or not, is nevertheless a key part of the causal chain that produces our future; even your decision to "make no plans for today and just drift into the uncertainties of the day" is still the result of deliberation, as I'm sure you realize.

Bill, Michael is giving more less the sort of reasoning Mele does. Ignore the nature of the causal relations between events. Assume one universe where there is libertarian free will and an other universe where there isn't but all the same material events are present. i.e. the move from Event 1 to Event 2 in universe A is deterministic (or random) whereas the move from Event 1 to Event 2 in universe B is a result of libertarian free will. Given that all we can know are the events and not the nature of the causality, does the question of free will really matter? (Especially, if as you note, we can't help acting as if we had it)

I think this pops up in Kant in a fascinating fashion. Of course Kant is taken as a libertarian because of the inner sense of freedom. Yet he lived at a time of Newtonian determinism and seemed to take physics for granted. (I'm not super up on this area of his thought, but I don't believe he denied the common views of the era) Given that he ends up being the ultimate compatibilist. From outside we accept physics but innerly think we have true freedom.

Anyway, my own view would be that our instincts and cognition demand that we believe choices are up to us but are unable to really analyze what "us" is. The question is ultimately over the nature of the self but our cognition demands that the self be an indivisible concept whether the actual self is or not.

Whoops. That should read, "intially ignore the nature of the causal relations." That is our idea of causality is inferred from the events themselves. We have no way to "see" causal relations. Given that outside of our ingrained sense that we are free there's nothing to see from the "world out there" that we actually are free.

I think though that the work of cognitive scientists towards things like agency detection and so forth offer a very compelling explanation of why we think of ourselves as non-decomposable agents with freedom. So while I agree we can't help thinking that way, I'm not sure we can't deduce that we are not necessarily that way. Even if our reasoning is a secondary sort and in primal deliberation we think an other way. I think what this leads to is an "appearances" versus "reality" distinction of one sort or an other. This kind of problem is quite different from the problem of whether first person perspective can be reduced to third person. That problem is intractable, from what I can see. This question of freedom seems quite resolvable even if there is no firm evidence one way or the other right now.

David Brightly,

Your very interesting suggestion seems to be that there is no incompatibility between FW and determinism if we are careful to keep first-person talk separate from third-person talk. It's as if there are two incommensurable but equally valid perspectives, neither of which can be subordinated to the other, and each true form its own POV. If so, then we couldn't say that one is reality and the other mere appearance or even illusion.

But surely reality is ONE and so one feels the need to integrate the two perspectives.

>>it may well be the determinism of the material world that guarantees this conformance.<< Doesn't this mix the two perspectives contrary to what you say earlier?


You query, Doesn't this mix the two perspectives contrary to what you say earlier? I'd like to think not. There seems to be a 'law' of first-person experience that my beliefs and desires determine my actions in the sense that the same beliefs and desires could not give rise to two distinct actions. This is analogous to the 'no two futures' of third person determinism. The third person world correlates of these would be states of or processes in my brain plus events in my muscles leading to bodily movements, the latter being physically determined by the former.

David's trying to have it both ways just like Kant (IMO).

It's not clear to me that reality actually is one. I just could never buy Plotinus there...


You are right of course that in a deterministic universe if it is fore-ordained that I shall deliberate, then I shall deliberate. But here’s the issue I found most interesting in Bill’s posts. If I’m sitting here this morning and mulling over the day ahead, and also imbibing a rather full-bodied deterministic view about what will happen, why the hell would I bother to deliberate anything? Isn’t it already decided how I shall act? I shall act as I shall act. No deliberations and ruminations needed. In fact, how can I deliberate if deliberation is essentially an exercise in determining my as yet undetermined future? That is just too blatantly contradictory to imagine even a philosopher trying to do it.

My suggestion is that deliberation can be seen as something different than future making. I can be seen as an attempt to anticipate what will happen and prepare for it psychologically. On that view of deliberation, I think, there can be deliberating determinists (but there are complications).

Notice also that a deterministic view need not find any direct causal link between my deliberated choices and my actions. As Wegner suggests, my choices could be mere epiphenomena, more or less simultaneous with our actions, but not causing them in any way. I think Wegner and the Libet School are correct that we do confabulate a conscious choice to explain to ourselves many of the actions we find ourselves performing. Why do I do the things do? I guess I must have chosen to!


You said "It's not clear to you that reality is actually one." I know that seemed like a throwaway comment, but would you care to explain that more? I'm curious.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Unfortunately for me, yet fortunately for you (since it spares you another one of my lengthy posts), I can only make a brief comment on these issues presently.

I wish to emphasize the fact that free will and consciousness are inextricably linked. Determinism of the materialist kind, therefore, denies the existence of both. Bill has emphasized the connection; I wish to do the same but in a somewhat different way.

Suppose someone thinks that they must act in accordance with certain moral precepts they accept (I actually know a couple of people like that). Suppose such a person feels that the recognition of the truth and force of these moral precepts is so imposing that they simply cannot but follow them. So they do. Did they act freely?
I think they did act freely. And this is so despite the fact that their action was prompted by their recognition of the imposing force of these moral precepts. And the reason I think they acted freely is because the acceptance of the moral precepts and the recognition and sense of these precepts' imposing force are all goings on within a conscious medium. None of these matters are induced or dictated by causal agents that lie outside of the agent's consciousness.
Matters become considerably different if we discover, lets say, that the recognition of the moral precepts or the sense of their imposing force is induced by some drug the person took the previous hour. Then, I submit, we will no longer view the matters as an instance of free will.
Some might say that all I have shown is the obvious: consciousness is a necessary condition for the existence and realization of free will; but it is not sufficient. However, that is not what I have tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to show. What I have tried to show is that consciousness enables free will: i.e., that free will is a dispositional or a capacity-property of consciousness.
So naturally I have just compounded problems, since I have now proposed to view free will as a propensity, dispositional. potentiality, or capacity property of consciousness, all of which are in and of themselves highly problematical. But then again why should the world with us in it be simple?


Hi Peter,

LADIES and gentlemen? Oh, I get it, you must be including Miss Rand in our séance/discussion. Very gentlemanly of you.

Let me pose you a question. Feel free of course to decline it in silence.

A philandering neuroscientist says “I wish to live a more virtuous life, and I even try to, but we are all little animals living in a deterministic universe. Before I was born, my genes determined that the medio-ventral area of my PFC (pre-frontal cortex) would be less developed than my dorso-lateral region. Therefore, in the face of temptation, temptation is always going to win out over self-control.”

How would you go about trying to persuade this man that Free Will is not a fiction of the philosophers—who wouldn’t know a fact if it hit them in the head?

Bill offered us the argument from deliberation. A serious argument. If you deliberate, you must believe in free will. But maybe not, if my objection holds water. Genes or drugs control us, as in your example. What’s the difference?

Joseph, I'm thinking about it because I'm reading Badiou for some discussions I'm in. (I'm convinced he's a horrible writer, but that's a different matter) This is key for his thought. I'm not sure he's right but then I'm trying to follow the subtle set theory he applies.

Anyway the One can be conceived of as either a source that is logically totalizing (ala many forms of neoPlatonism) or something more akin to Spinoza. Or you can conceive of it as simply the set of all things and call that One. However there are reasonable criticisms of both those moves. (And, since neoPlatonism tends to get such a bad rap I should note that many of the Platonic philosophers of late antiquity were at least somewhat familiar with these issues)

The idea is that the notion of a whole is inherently problematic. You can see this in various philosophers, most of whom I'm sure Bill would ridicule. But I think it important to see it as a live option and not just something we uncritically assume.


Maybe Peter thinks that 'Brodie' is a female name.

>>My suggestion is that deliberation can be seen as something different than future making. It can be seen as an attempt to anticipate what will happen and prepare for it psychologically. On that view of deliberation, I think, there can be deliberating determinists. . .<<

So when I deliberate about what to do with a sudden windfall, I consider various *epistemic* possibilities: I invest in gold and gold drops to $600 an ounce; I maintain a cash position and inflation eats it up; I buy stocks and the market surges . . . But in reality there is only one possible future given the truth of determinism. My deliberation has no effect on what I will do; it is a mere epiphenomenon, caused but not causing. By considering the epistemic possibilities, I prepare myself psychologically for whatever happens.

This is an interesting suggestion. But when I sincerely deliberate, I do more than consider what might, for all I know, happen. I consider what TO DO. I must act, and not to act is to act, as Sartre maght have said. (If I do nothing, then the money stays in a cash account, and that is an action by default.) When I deliberate I consider what might happen, but I also de-cide on a course of action. How could I do this if I believed that this decision is a mere epiphenomenon? What I am getting at is that to deliberate sincerely I must view myself as an agent cause, something like an Aristotelian unmoved mover.

There seems to be at least a performative inconsistency between (a) sincerely deliberating and (b) sincerely believing that there is exactly one possible future that will come about because of events prior to my birth.

Hi Bill,

I accept your performative inconsistency, but you are someone who believes in deliberation as future making. You can't think of deliberation as future making and embrace determinism.

You mention commodities speculation. I must tell you that nothing gave me a stronger sense of living in a deterministic universe than day trading. You are in control of nothing except the bets you make, and those, if you are disciplined trader, are rigidly specified by your trading rules & discipline. I felt like a machine, an automaton. I started reading Spinoza. It was really creepy.

>>You can't think of deliberation as future making and embrace determinism.<<

That's exactly my point. To deliberate sincerely is to believe in its efficacy. But I cannot hold this belief and also believe that determinism is true.


You could have opted out of day trading. Did you?

1)You ask: "How would you go about trying to persuade this man that Free Will is not a fiction of the philosophers—who wouldn’t know a fact if it hit them in the head?"

Instead of trying to persuade him of such a lofty subject, I would rather try to convince this fellow that in fact he uses science as a way of excusing choices he already made and has the ability to unmake.

2) "Genes or drugs control us, as in your example. What’s the difference?"

Genes do not control us. Evolutionary biology explains at most how certain biological or physical characteristics are dominant within a certain population; e.g., the human species. Evolutionary psychology attempts to extend the very same explanation to a wide variety of mental characteristics. Without going into too much detail, neither evolutionary biology nor evolutionary psychology make claims at the *individual* level. The genes simply transmit along a lineage characteristics that proved to be more adaptive in certain conditions than other characteristics that prevailed within the same population ("descent by modification"). However, while genes are the causal agents that give rise to the biological or even mental characteristics (phenotypes), they do not fully determine many aspects of these characteristics including, and in particular, how they will be developed and used at the *individual* level. Hence, the enormous variation among individuals even within the same species and roughly the same genetic makeup (which, incidentally, is still one of the most fundamental obstacles in behavioral science research). (An interesting question in my mind is why certain physical and mental characteristic have a normal distribution within our population. It is reasonable to assume that this fact has something to do with our genotype, but I don't know).

Thus, the manner in which genes effect us is not quite the same as a drug an individual takes which has direct and immediate causal effect (as in my example) or some other coercive measure such as physical force, etc.



I think it's important to keep in mind that even under determinism my deliberation is an essential part of the causal chain that leads to my future actions. Even if the future action is just to adopt total passivity, the will only happen as a result of my deliberations regarding free will having led to that choice.

To repeat the sort of example I gave earlier: saying that "our actions are already determined, so there's no need to deliberate" is like saying "the gas is already determined to end up in the tank (or not), so there's no need for me to pump it."

I don't think the Libet results are relevant insofar as that is concerned; they pertain only to *conscious awareness* of the process of deliberation - not whether deliberation itself (which may be both conscious or unconscious, and determined or free, depending on your view) is an effective part of the causal chain that leads to our future actions.

The starting point for this post was the "strong" notion of "could have done otherwise." The problem with that reading is that it is incoherent.

Suppose I believed that choice A satisfied my desires better than choice B, so I made choice A. Now we ask whether I could have done otherwise on the strong reading. If I could have believed that A satisfied my desires better than B, but somehow chose B, that would precisely be a failure of my will. To argue the strong reading is to deny free will. I sincerely doubt that anyone's intuition of free will would include the possibility that they could have had the same beliefs and desires at time T, but would have made a different choice than they had.

When I say I could have chosen differently at the ice cream shop last night, I don't mean that I could have recognized that a chocolate ice cream would best satisfy my desires, but buy a coconut ice cream instead. I really mean that had I recognized that coconut ice cream would have satisfied my needs better, then (and only then) would I have chosen to buy the coconut ice cream.

Doc writes, "I sincerely doubt that anyone's intuition of free will would include the possibility that they could have had the same beliefs and desires at time T, but would have made a different choice than they had."

That is simply not the case. Incompatibilists hold precisely what you find incoherent. The following is from SEP, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/#3.2:

>>Incompatibilists think that something stronger is required: for me to act with free will requires that there are a plurality of futures open to me consistent with the past (and laws of nature) being just as they were. I could have chosen differently even without some further, non-actual consideration's occurring to me and ‘tipping the scales of the balance’ in another direction. Indeed, from their point of view, the whole scale-of-weights analogy is wrongheaded: free agents are not mechanisms that respond invariably to specified ‘motive forces.’ They are capable of acting upon any of a plurality of motives making attractive more than one course of action. Ultimately, the agent must determine himself this way or that.<<

Bill, yes, I know that this is what incompatibilists believe, but I don't think it's inspired by our intuitive experience of "could have done otherwise".

I think there are a couple of intuitions in the game, both of which I find reasonable:

I1) When I made decision X, I could instead have made decision Y, assuming I had desired Y instead of X.

I2) My decisions have an effect.

I don't think there's an intuition I1B:

I1B) When I made decision X, I could instead have made decision Y, even had I desired X instead of Y. (Nonexistent)

(Note that I1B does not contradict I1.)

I think incompatibilism is inspired by I2, not I1. I think that, starting from I2, incompatibilists infer that I1B somehow ought to be our intuition (though I don't think it is). (That is, if A causes agent B, then agent B causes C, C was destined to happen, even before agent B considered A.)

In contrast, a compatibilist says that I1 and I2 are both correct intuitions, and will argue that decisions do have an effect in a deterministic universe. (If A causes agent B, then agent B causes C, B's deliberation still has an effect, namely, C.)

I'm just saying that I don't have the intuition that, if everything had been identical at the time of my decision, I could have chosen something different. Maybe, I'm just weird.

You say, "Deliberating, I have the sense that it is up to me what happens." I, too, have that intuition. However, if what I am is a function of the past (or of timeless constants), I don't see a contradiction. (If A causes agent B, and agent B then causes C, C would not have happened if A had not caused agent B, and B's deliberation, as an intermediate state.)

Indeed, I have no intuition that my present state is not a function of the past (or timeless constants). I don't have complete knowledge of my present state or how it came to be, so I lack any intuition for broad claims about what affects that state.

Rationally, however, I can see that, if I exclude past causes and timeless factors, I've completely exhausted all the factors that could possibly affect my decision (barring the future affecting the present). If a decision depends on an empty set, it would be fundamentally random. In other words, fundamental randomness seems to me to be the logical complement of determinism. There's no third, "free" category.

I’ve really enjoyed this discussion of free will and deliberation. Thank you all. Permit me a skeptical parting shot. I want to ask: what evidence is there that deliberation can bring about any action, especially when habit or impulsive desire or some other unconscious mechanism opposes that action?

I deliberate and decide that blogging, drinking, and consorting nightly with the fine women at the Pussykat Lounge are very bad for me. I resolve to eliminate these behaviours at once! A week later I am blogging and drinking more and engaged to Ms Fifi at the Pussykat. I resolve again to stop doing these things. A week later I am still at it. After a few more attempts I realize that my resolutions have no power to change these behaviour. I sit down and deliberate again and this time decide that maybe these things are actually good for me. I resolve to continue blogging and drinking and dallying with Ms Fifi. Now my deliberation is effective and I do what I’ve resolved to do, obviously because of my powerful resolution to do so!!!

The suggestion is that my behaviour is controlled by unconscious limbic processes that direct me with impulse and emotion. When I deliberate, if I chose what the limbic brain wants, I get that result, whereas if I choose something it doesn’t want, I get what the limbic brain wants, not what deliberation wants. Deliberation has no power to affect any action. Sometimes it accurately predicts what I do, and then claims credit for that result. If deliberation can cause action, why are there so akratic failures like the example mentioned above? Proponents of free will have this little problem with weakness of the will.

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