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A new Tippling Philosopher has recently joined our group and come to the last few meetings. I was discussing free will with him in the pub, and he seemed to fail to understand how the Principle of Alternative Possibilities worked, and how the incoherence of free will seems insurmountable. Here is the last email I sent to the group to try to explain.

Further thoughts on free will since our conversation in the Rose in June which I enjoyed.

Yes, twas good.

Firstly a frivolous one. If, during our conversation, I had suddenly seized you by the balls and you had punched me as a result, would it have been a valid defense for me to say that I wasn’t accountable for my action and, therefore, should not have been punched. The reason I was not accountable is that I don’t have free will. To justify my punishement would you have to construct some other version of free will to put in place of the one you have refuted?

OK, so this is the big debate in free will. Can a lack of free will still allow for moral accountability? This is what all the philosophers from Dennett to Pereboom are arguing over. I urge you to read a fascinating, quality book by Derk Pereboom called Living Without Free Will – sometimes it is easier to go to a large source rather than to explain it succinctly in an email. Pereboom (a hard incompatibilist, meaning that free will and determinism are definitely not compatible) concludes rather differently to say, Dennett:

Living without a conception of our choices and actions as freely willed in the sense required for moral responsibility does not come naturally to us. Our psychologies and our patterns of behavior presuppose that our choices and actions are free in this sense. Nevertheless, not only are there good arguments against this belief, but also, despite our initially apprehensive reactions to hard incompatibilism, believing it would not have disastrous consequences, and indeed it promises significant benefits for human life. Hard incompatibilism would not undermine the purpose in life that our projects can provide. Neither would it hinder the possibility of the good interpersonal relationships fundamental to our happiness. Acceptance of hard incompatibilism rather holds out the promise of greater equanimity by reducing the anger that hinders fulfillment. Far from threatening meaning in life, hard incompatibilism can help us achieve the conditions required for flourishing, for it can assist in releasing us from the harmful passions that contribute so much to human distress. If we did in fact relinquish our presumption of free will and moral responsibility, then, perhaps surprisingly, our lives might well be better for it.

Dennett, a compatibilist (that free will and determinism are compatible, but that this means redefining free will). He actually believes we should adhere to a form of free will for pragmatic, societal reasons. He believes that because we are the one species which has evolved to rationally reflect on our actions, predict and evaluate, we are endowed with ‘free will’. As someone else has said of him:

Moral responsibility is justified by appealing to social contract theory.  To say that we are rational agents (persons with free will, capable of making rational choices for which we are accountable) is to say that we are competent to enter into contracts.  Moral responsibility is tacitly accepted by anyone who actively participates in society as a rational agent.  If we break a contract, we are accountable.  Thus, we deserve the punishment stipulated by the contract.  Thus, we can punish people just for breaking a contract, and not because we think that punishing them will increase the overall good in the world.  Dennett says this is ultimately consequentialist, because the entire system of moral responsibility is justifiable on consequentialist grounds.  We are increasing the overall good, Dennett says, even though we are acting on our retributivist impulses.  We have found a way to “direct [our retributivist desires] down justifiable channels,” he says (with his own italics).

It seems that Dennett is justifying a non-consequentialist (or perhaps semi-consequentialist) approach to ethics on consequentialist grounds.  It is okay to be a deontologist to some extent, Dennett says, because doing so increases the overall good.  So Dennett has (perhaps) found a pragmatic justification for limited deontology: moral responsibility and retributive justice are justifiable as necessary aspects of social contracts.

But neither people believe we COULD have done other wise. Here is where I think you fundamentally failed to understand THE KEY point to most discussions of free will. I will try to lay it out.

People who believe in libertarian free will believe that one could have done otherwise in a given situation.

So let’s imagine such a situation. We need to take a snapshot of the universe. Let’s call this t=0 (t is time). Now, at t=0, we have what is called a causal circumstance (CC). None of this is any longer in our control at the exact moment of t=0. This will include:

  1. Being born.
  2. Your genetic inheritance.
  3. Your life in the womb, shaping your genetic self.
  4. Your time and place of birth.
  5.  Your parents, relatives, race and gender; your nurture and experiences in infancy and childhood.
  6.  The mutations in your brain and body throughout life; and other purely random events.
  7. Your natural physical stature, looks, smile and voice; your intelligence; your sexual drive and proclivities; your personality and wit; and your natural ability in sports, music and dance.
  8. Your religious training; economic circumstances; cultural influences; political and civil rights; the prevailing customs of your times.
  9. The blizzard of experiences throughout life, not chosen by you but which happened to you.
  10. the exact universe at time t=0, every atom interacting; every stimulus hitting you; everything about your environment; the laws of nature etc

So, at t=0, we have a particular causal circumstance which takes into account all of the above. Let’s call this CC1.

So let’s say that you can theoretically do A or B in this situation (patting me on the back or punching me in the face).

The libertarian appears to break the law of non-contradiction here in saying that A and ~A (not A) can be true in CC1 (philosophers might argue about the truth values of counterfactuals, but we won’t get into that…). In other words, you are saying that it can equally be true that you really could punch me in the face or pat me in the back in a situation with IDENTICAL circumstances, with all causal factors being the same.

But then what GROUNDS each decision? Because the reasons for doing each thing are identical. I don’t have more or less access to any given reason or set of reasons, otherwise you are actually changing the causal circumstance. My reasons for doing A and ~A, and my ability to rationalise one over the other is identical, since the CC is identical (well, technically, the CC is singular).

That is why it is easier to think about CC1 and imagining you would choose, for a number of reasons, after weighing them up, to pat me on the back. We then carry on the world to t=10 and then rewind back to the ‘identical’ t=0. What would possibly make you do otherwise? Those reasons, and your ability to rationalise, and your weighting for different reasons, will be identical to when you chose to pat me – so what could ground your decision to punch me that wouldn’t have already been there ‘the first time round’?

The only way you could ground B over A now is by changing the variables, changing the causal circumstance. But that invalidates the ability to do otherwise in the same situation!

This is the philosophical situation that has long meant that free will has been deemed by the great majority of philosophers as logically incoherent, and it has meant that most philosophers in the discipline are happy enough to redefine free will into something workable and usable. Often you hear the word ‘volition’ or ‘authorship’ or so on. Some people, like Roderick Chisholm or Robert Kane, insist that we can make sense of this but appear to have failed to provide a decent account.

So what interests philosophers is whether the denial of the ability to do otherwise also denies moral responsibility. In other words, it’s pretty much accepted in the mainstream that traditional notions of free will are incoherent; thus if we redefine free will, do we still have moral responsibility.

Interestingly, in Greek thought and Eastern thought, free will doesn’t really feature. It is only Western Christian style thinking that meant that the idea of free will gained traction.

Next some semantics. “Free will” can otherwise be expressed as volition. This comes from the latin verb to want or to “will”. This implies a verb. A verb is inoperable without a person to enact it. Free will is, therefore, meaningless without linking it to the presence of a person or persons.

As Schopenhauer stated (On the Freedom of the Will 1839:

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.

What you are stating there is authorship. But that does not mean it has to be freely willed.

The problem is with free will is, as most libertarians would argue, the agent has to be the originator of a causal chain. You cannot further derive antecedent reasons for an action back and back (this is determinism). One has to defy causality (which is why free will in your sense is often called contra-causal free will). But if you cannot derive reasons for doing something further and further back, you can only ground it with an axiom (see Munchausen’s Trilemma –

The problem here is that, with an axiom, you are grounding a freely willed decision with ‘just because’ which is effectively synonymous with random. You cannot own a decision and have moral responsibility over it if is effectively random, or a-rational. Free will is, at heart, supposedly a rational process. But that implies reasons. But you cannot have antecedent reasoning. And this is the incoherence of free will.

I really suggest reading up on the Dilemma of Determinism:

You tried to prove the impossibility of free will by proposing two opposite or mutually exclusive actions that that cannot co-exist but, before the act is carried out, are equal possibilities. You referred to all the atoms of the universe present at that moment and how they were in the same configuration at that moment regardless of which action is carried out. This philosophical experiment was carried out in a dry mathematical world where no person was present. I felt, almost, as though we were inside an equation rather than in the real world we inhabit. 

Well, that is what logic is. If you are saying it is dependent on the physical world, at the point of deciding, if you cannot control that physical world, then you cannot control the variables which affect your ‘free’ choice. Thus it ain’t free. Libertarians need to posit a mechanism whereby the CONCSIOUS will is doing the driving, since that is what they see as the author.

Take someone with a brain tumour. They act differently, and might go and murder someone. Their rationality is changed such that their neurological set up causes them to do something.

But what is the difference between a tumour victim and a neurotypical subject. The neurotypical subject still has pieces of brain stuff which make them do x and y, over which they have no control. The only difference is that we see the tumour as in some way abnormal, so we intuit that it abrogates responsibility in some way.

Absent of physical real-world variables, we are left with the world of abstract reason, which many would argue is simply logic. And that’s what maths is ‘made of’.

I would assert that, if you insert into this scenario a real person who contains the possibility of free will and decision, suddenly our dry mathematical concepts are also freed. Suddenly choices can be chosen, precisely because a free agent is inserted into the equation. It seems to me you have refuted free will by denying access to the arena to the agent of free will. Of course there is no free will if the ‘willer’ is not there.

That would indeed be an assertion.

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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,...