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I sent regular theistic commenter Verbose Stoic (VS) a chapter I was once commissioned to write by John W. Loftus for his anthology Christianity in the Light of Science. VS has written a lengthy critique on his blog here. I have commented a few times there already in answer to some initial grumbles from reading the first few paragraphs. First of all, a massive thanks to him for taking the time and interest. Due to its length, I will try and summarise the main gist of his claims. If he finds that I am mischaracterising him, I ask him to please put me straight.

This is and always has been the core point of this blog – good-faith dialogue. So often, it is not (in the comment threads). We can all do better. It is one thing disagreeing, yet another to substantiate disagreement with rational evidence and defend it in good faith.

Patronising request over, let’s get it on. This will be the first of a few posts as VS’s own was long.

The opening salvo we had was over this claim:

it also takes an open and long-standing debate in philosophy and asserts that the solution has been found and that it’s hard determinism that has won.

I think this is slight misunderstanding of my position – there is no real content that I disagree with in terms of compatibility – it’s just about ascribing some properties to a given label.

I am both a hard determinist and a compatibilist. It depends on how you define free will. If it is the real, conscious and rational ability to do otherwise in a given scenario, then I am a hard determinist. If it is to do what I desire, then I am a compatibilist.

For me, it is not so much what I am, but what I deny. I deny libertarian free will (LFW). I define LFW as:

The real, conscious and rational ability to do otherwise in a given scenario.

Whereas the compatibilist defines it something like:

The conscious and rational ability to do what one wants in a given scenario.

You can’t do the first, but you can do the second. I personally deny free exists as I define it as the first, but I don’t deny you can do the second, it’s just that, as Schopenhauer states, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills” or something to that effect.

And so perhaps we are talking past each other because he says:

The issue is that, speaking as a LFWer — Libertarian Free Willer — I don’t believe that [“the ability to do otherwise”], and again most people who care about free will at all don’t believe that.

In taking aim at my definition of LFW, he states:

To really do a proper analysis, you need to look more at the process and less at the vague explanatory statement that describes the relationship between humans, apes and that common ancestor.

In fact, it appears that we really do agree an awful lot:

So then we fall into the pit of winding back time and claiming that different decisions have to be made no matter how ridiculous, which as Pearce notes decouples free will from reasons and reasoning, which would then produce a rather strange idea of free will.  But when we analyze what is important and meaningful about free will, what we discover is that free will decisions are crucially related to reasons and to the decision-making processes that are responsive to reasons.  What we mean when we say that they could do otherwise in that situation, really, is to note that the outcome is not determined until the decision-making process finishes, and whatever decision that process comes to is the one that we will follow.  Now, all rational decision-making processes — like the ones humans tend to use when they deliberate — will respond to reasons, and so an LFWer would have to conclude that if her decision-making process proceeded as it did the first time then she would indeed make the same decision even if we rolled back time.

I talk about the idea that the options for causation are caused and uncaused. There is no middle ground here. This is something that people often think that I call the 80-20 problem (from “Libertarian Free Will and the 80-20 Problem“):

One of the most common defences of Libertarian Free Will (or contra-causal free will) is what I sometimes term the 80-20% approach. Most people, to some degree or another, accept that our lives are at least somewhat, and in most cases, a good deal influenced. This may be by genetic, biological or environmental factors. And it is hard to deny that, at the point of making a decision, we are having our decision influenced by external or internal motivators. This is expressed often as a claim like “Well, we are influenced quite a bit, but we still have some degree of free will” or “I think we are 80% determined, but 20% of our decision-making is freely willed”….

…an action is either caused or it’s random. To claim it is caused but not determined is nonsensical. The basis of rejecting LFW is this, since neither option allows for free will. To think otherwise would imply that the agent caused the action but that it wasn’t determined; that the agent could have done otherwise. For example, at 9.15am this morning in this universe, when the phone rang, I could have picked it up, or I could not have done. I had the ability to do either. Or, at t=1 in causal circumstance C the agent could have done A or B. If the agent had done A and we continued the universe until t=10 and then rewound the universe, do you know what, he could have done B.

The problem with this is that at C at t=1, the agent had a set of reasons for doing A. This is what determined that he chose A. The universe up until that moment, his genes and biology, the environment up to every single atom, had causal influence to produce the ‘choice’ of doing A. So if we went on 10 minutes and then rewound to C at t=1, considering the entire universe would be identical, and the person identical, what COULD cause the agent to choose B and not A? In order to do so, the agent would have to be ever so slightly different, or the environment (universe) would have to be different. In order to claim that the agent COULD have done differently would surely require a REASON. Since a freely willed action cannot be randomly defined, as the agent has no ownership over random, then there must necessarily be a reason.

Causality takes on the form of a chain of events. A causes B which causes C and then D. This goes back until the beginning of the universe or some such similar causal scenario. What Libertarian free willers believe is that, since the causal chain cannot regress back to the Big Bang or similar, as this implies determinism, the agent must be the originator of the causal chain. Let’s look at this in terms of ‘why’ questions. Why did D happen? Because of C. Why C? Because of B, and so on. In the case of an agent, we cannot keep asking the why question because we keep going back and back, beyond the decision. So at some point, the agent has to be ultimately responsible for the decision – the originator of the causal chain. The problem is that without the ability to answer the why questions, the basis of the causal chain becomes “just because” which is synonymous with random or irrationality. This is why, in Freedom Evolves, philosopher Daniel Dennett claims that free will requires determinism since without it, there is no reason for an action and it becomes meaningless.

Which is all good and well, but what about the issue at hand? Well, when people claim we are, say, 80% determined, but that 20% of an action is still freely willed, we have EXACTLY the same problem – we have just moved that argument into a smaller paradigm, into the 20%. Assuming that we forget the 80% fraction which is determined so not being of interest to the LFWer, we are left with the 20%. But this is devoid of determining reasons. So what, then, is the basis of that 20% in making the decision? The agent cannot say, “Well  my genetically determined impulses urged me to A, my previous experience of this urged me towards A, but I was left with a 20% fraction which overcame these factors and made me do B” because he still needs to establish the decision as being reasonable.  OK, so if that 20% is not just random or unknown (but still grounded in something) and had any meaning, then it would be reasoned! The two horns of the Dilemma of Determinism raise their ugly heads again. We are left with reasoned actions or actions without reason, neither of which give the LFWer the moral responsibility that they are looking for.I’m not really sure if this sums up VS’s approach because he gives an example of making a decision about cooking something that gets changed midway through the preparation because he remembers something about some leftovers he had otherwise forgotten about.

He talks about this process as not being fully determined in a way I simply do not understand.

The thing is, though, the decision in the case above isn’t random either, which with totally determined are the two options that Pearce — and, to be fair, most people in the debate — allows for.  The thing is, that decision doesn’t seem to be totally determined, as it does indeed rely on me not considering something that it was perfectly reasonable for me to consider, but it isn’t random either because it not only is based on the other desires and beliefs that I’ve considered but also critically on the desires and beliefs that I forgot to consider.  Ultimately, what we have when we look at our decisions even in such simple and common cases they definitely seem to be reason-responsive, which is certainly not random but also at least isn’t determined by the desires and beliefs we clearly have, but only by the ones that are considered there.

This is odd because he is using a “reason-responsive” understanding of free will that I’m not sure is clearly defined.

Look, making a decision is about reacting to your given causal circumstance, whereby all of these variables are at play and not under your control at the time of making any given decision – including:

  1. Being born.
  2. Their genetic inheritance.
  3. Their life in the womb, shaping your genetic self.
  4. Their time and place of birth.
  5. Their parents, relatives, race and gender; your nurture and experiences in infancy and childhood.
  6. The mutations in their brain and body throughout life; and other purely random events.
  7. Their natural physical stature, looks, smile and voice; intelligence; sexual drive and proclivities; personality and wit; and natural ability in sports, music and dance.
  8. Their religious training; economic circumstances; cultural influences; political and civil rights; the prevailing customs of their times.
  9. The blizzard of experiences throughout life, not chosen by them but which happened to them. All the molecules, particles, forces and wave functions; i.e. the environment.

Forgetting something falls into (9) and it still simply part of your causal circumstance. It appears VS is using special pleading to argue that forgetting something before making a decision somehow renders it not “reason-responsive” or similar. The question is, for making a decision (rationally and consciously) at a given moment after just remembering something, if we were to live on for ten minutes and then rewind to that exact moment, what would underwrite our decision to decide otherwise, ceteris paribus. Because all other things are equal.

VS surely gets this and is so close in saying things like:

So when Pearce later asks what the world would look like if we had free will, while the simple answer from LFWers would be “Like the one we have, since we have it!”, we can give him a more detailed answer here.  We can see that what we should see when we examine the actions of people when they make decisions that we consider free will decisions is that they should be reason-responsive.  What this means is that if you take the same person and put them in similar situations, they should act in a way that aligns with their basic character and desires and beliefs, and so much of the time they will make similar or perhaps even identical decisions.

Yes. But then he says…

And yet, at times even in almost identical situations they will make completely different decisions and take completely different actions, but in general you won’t be able to find something in the environment that has changed that explains the difference, but you will be able to find a “reason” for it so it isn’t entirely random either.  They in general won’t do it “for no reason” but if you try to look outside them to the cause for the different outcome you won’t be able to find it there, but instead only by appealing to their internal beliefs and desires.

But here’s the thing: “almost identical” is not identical, and so when “in general you won’t be able to find something in the environment that has changed that explains the difference”, this might be true, but you are inviting in hidden variables. Our lack of knowledge about a causal circumstance is a given but doesn’t magically allow in LFW.

People in identical (truly absolutely identical) situations will make the same decisions, random notwithstanding.

To finish today, he continues:

So what we will see in the world is that in general people will make decisions in line with what we’d consider their basic personalities, but the decisions will not always align with that but if the decisions don’t align with that we will be able to find a reason why it didn’t.  To continue the food examples, some people on going to a restaurant will always order the same thing and will be very hesitant to try any new items that appear on the menu, and some people will always order something different and be eager to try any new menu items.  And yet, either of those people may change that behaviour on certain days or at certain restaurants.  The person who always wants to try something different may, at a particular restaurant, always order the same thing, and the person who always wants to order the same thing may try something different or a new menu item.  But this won’t be random.  They will always have a reason for the change in their typical behaviour, and it will be internal, not external.  So the person who atypically decides to stick with one order might do so because they really, really love that dish and can only get it there, and so every time they get the chance to have it they take it.  The person who generally doesn’t order the new item may look at it and find it appealing.  Heck, someone who always orders the same thing may simply decide one day that they don’t feel like the same old thing and so feel like doing something new.  So they would be deciding to give in to a lower-level — and possibly more determined — feeling that they could resist and have resisted in the past.  That doesn’t make it random, but instead keeps it as reason-responsive, even if their “reason” is just to avoid considering and following their reasons, like someone deciding to flip a coin to decide something rather than working it out in detail.

Firstly, this looks like VS is saying that we don’t have free will most of the time because we align with our basic desires, but then says sometimes we go against them. This is basically what Schopenhauer was talking about. It looks like he is making a false distinction in causal terms between some kind of base personality influence and some more “immediate” environmental context. Perhaps he needs to just bite the hard determinist bullet a little more honestly?

This incoherence is perfectly exemplified by the line “So they would be deciding to give in to a lower-level — and possibly more determined — feeling that they could resist and have resisted in the past.” There are no differentiating levels of causality here. It is almost like appealing to the idea of influence as stated above. In reality, you have all sorts of ingredients thrown into the cooking pot of a decision – some proximal and of the external environment, some genetic, some biologically environmental, and so on. There is no higher and lower differentiation in the way he is arguing for. There just is. I may go to the same restaurant and order the same thing 3 times because, of determining causality and then choose something different due to determining causality. it isn’t that the fourth time I can somehow allow my free will to win out more. That’s nonsense. The fourth time, there is a particular cocktail of variables that lead to a different outcome.

So I am confused. I will continue in another post, but for now, it seems there is probably an awful lot we agree on, but then some odd manouevres that lead to some ill-conceived ideas. If I misunderstand him, I’m sure he will let me know!

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...