Why The Free Will Problem Isn’t One

by Daniel A. Kaufman

First of all, the “Free Will Problem” is a stupid  name.  I mean, do I have to think there is such a thing as a “will” in order to believe in Free Will?  Or “freedom,” beyond that of being able to go to the mall, if I want to or not, if don’t?  Am I supposed to be Kant or something?

So, I’d rather talk about the “agency problem.”  The trouble is, there isn’t one.   A “problem” suggests that something is wrong, and in this case, nothing is.  Everyone thinks people have agency.  Of course, not everyone says that.  There are some philosophers (and some scientists trying to do philosophy in their free time) who say that we don’t.  But, they are lying.  Or if they aren’t, they have no idea what they are saying or what would follow, if they actually meant it.  It reminds me of Chesterton’s observation that “the determinist … finds that he cannot say ‘if you please’ to the housemaid.” (1)  The fact is that if you’ve ever given someone advice, asked someone for something, told someone to do something, praised or blamed someone for doing something, or engaged in any number of other garden-variety activities with people, then you believe they have agency.  So why would you say there isn’t any?  Just to publish papers on Free Will?  Please, don’t.  There’s only so much more bullshit anyone should have to take.

When you get right down to it, determinism is essentially a form of skepticism, and as always, with skepticism, there is a smart, interesting way of doing it, as well as a silly, boring one.  With regard to skepticism about the external world it seems that thankfully – blissfully – a good number of people finally have found their way to the smart way of doing it.  The proposition that the world doesn’t really exist or that there really aren’t other people isn’t a position that anyone holds, but a way of posing a challenge; a literary device, the purpose of which is to help us think more carefully about the reasons we give for the things we believe; about what they are and how they function.  And if we really learn something from the exercise, we might come to understand that regardless of the inquiry, there will always be things that are not possible to doubt, because they have to – as Wittgenstein described it – “stand fast,” if the particularly line of inquiry is to proceed in the first place.  If I am engaged in an inquiry with another person about our solar system, for example, I could have doubts about the number of moons that he claims orbit Saturn and demand that he provide reasons for why I should believe him.  But I could not doubt that there are planets or moons and demand reasons for thinking there are.  Or, rather, I could, but I would be taken as a “half-wit,” as Wittgenstein (admittedly, somewhat untactfully) put it.  That there are planets and moons must stand fast, if we are to have conversations about and engage in inquiry with regard to our solar system.  To demand reasons for that belief, in this context, is to misunderstand what reasons are and why one gives them. (2)

With regard to skepticism about agency, however – alas – many if not most people seem stuck on the silly, boring side of things, for the view that there is no agency is taken as an actual position, with a name and everything, and those who think that people do genuinely act are expected to provide reasons for thinking so.  I’m not suggesting that no one has found their way to the smart, interesting side of the question.  There still are some desultory Wittgensteinians and other wise-people wandering around the philosophical landscape trying to remind everyone that one could try to understand the relationship between reasons and actions in terms other than those currently fashionable in what passes today for the philosophy of mind, but they are few and far between, and have about as much effect as ghosts whispering things in empty rooms.

I blame science for this to a great degree or more precisely, the ham-fisted importing of hard-scientific notions into our discussion of human activity and affairs, something for which both scientists and philosophers are to blame.  That there is no agency involved in billiard balls bouncing off of one another and ending up in various holes (or not), because their movements are governed by strict causal laws, makes perfect sense, given our conception of the things involved.  But the importation of these notions into our effort to understand human conduct – the treatment of our actions as nothing more than movements and the relationship between the states of mind responsible for them as strictly causal, in the same sense – is little more than an exercise in category-error-making.   Billiard balls and their movements are mathematically quantifiable magnitudes. People and their actions are not.  The latter, unlike the former, are only completely describable in what philosophers call “intentional terms,” meaning that one has not fully characterized either people or their actions, until one has included how they represent things and how things are represented.  This is not true of billiard balls and their motions, which is why one can explain their various goings-on entirely in the language of classical mechanics, while one cannot do the same for people and the things they do.  One is tempted, here, to say “duh,” but … oh, wait, I just did.

Going to the mall or passing someone the mustard or following someone’s beckoning finger are actions that people engage in, which may involve the movements of various body parts but are not reducible to them, and because any accounting for them is steeped in intentionality, they presuppose agency, which simply is the doing of things for various reasons.  Asking, “Why did you go to the mall?” or “Why did you pass him the mustard” or “Why did you follow that little minx ?” are not equivalent to asking “Why did the nerves and muscles in your arms and legs and the rest of your body do such and such?” and the causality involved, when one cites one’s reasons for doing the various things in question, like “because I wanted to go and hang out with my friends and maybe get a Slurpee in the Food Court” or “because I know he loves mustard on his hot dogs” or “because she was eager and gorgeous, and I’m not an idiot” is not equivalent to – or anything like, really – that invoked in the accounts one gives of the billiard balls’ movements or of the movements of your arms and legs or your other body parts.  With respect to the question of agency, then, and returning to Wittgenstein’s remarks on skepticism for a moment, once we are speaking of actions and our reasons for engaging in them, that people have agency must stand fast and is not something about which it makes any sense to demand reasons for believing, unless one is, I regret to say, a half-wit.  I can doubt your reason for going to the mall or even that you went there at all.  But what I can’t doubt is that there is such a thing as reasons for going to malls or people going to them – and I mean people going to them, not peoples’ body parts moving through them – any more than I can (not half-wittedly) doubt that there are malls or people.

Now, beyond half-wits, there also are genuinely crazy people, who will want to say, “so much the worse for actions and reasons and agency then” and suggest that motor movements and their mechanical (and other hard-scientific) causes are all there “really” is.  The super crazy ones, like B.F. Skinner, may even be somewhat more consistent in their stand and go on to say things like “and worse still for responsibility, reward, desert, and all the other things that presuppose actions and reasons and agency,” as he did in his gloriously crazy book, with its suitably crazy title, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. (3) But being crazier and more consistent doesn’t make any of it any more believable (or less silly).  It’s not just that I’m sure that when Skinner was alive he asked people to pass him the mustard or that he blamed people when they cheated him or followed the odd minx or two’s crooked fingers, back in his racier days, but that the behaviorist’s  supposedly purely mechanistic — and therefore, deterministic — accounts just never could be made to work, without intentionality and agency somehow sneaking back in.  Sure, it’s likely that if you deprive someone of food or water long enough, he’ll eat or drink something if offered it, but if he’s on a hunger strike and believes he shouldn’t, he might not.  And of course, if you litter the mall with lovely minxes with beckoning fingers, the odds are that a lot of guys are going to make it a priority destination, but if one of them suddenly realizes that he’s forty-eight and quite happily married, he might not.  So, where one may find the nice, neat, cause and effect-chains determinists like so much, if one focuses one’s attention at the level of peoples’ pharynxes or esophagi and their degrees of dryness and responses to moisture and the like or on the body parts involved in sexual arousal, once you start talking about people and drinking and hunger striking and chasing or not chasing girls, you’ve left that framework behind and the neat causality and determinism with it.  You are in a world full of – and defined by – agency.

I would be remiss not to blame philosophers too, because while they aren’t the ones talking the worst nonsense about this stuff (that would be the perennially regrettable Sam Harris), they are the ones who should know better.  I mentioned the philosophy of mind, and it really is the sorry state of that once fascinating, productive discipline that is to blame here.  Maybe it’s just physics envy, to which philosophers have always been susceptible, or maybe it’s the fact that somehow they just didn’t notice the word ‘social’ in front of ‘social science’ – of which psychology is one – but philosophers working in the philosophy of mind have largely adopted the billiard-ball model of causal explanation in their accounts of human action, and not just middlebrow philosophers, but the brightest lights in the discipline; the people who have done truly brilliant work.  In this area, however, the stuff they are doing is no better than it was in Descartes’ day, something that poor souls like Peter Hacker, who really is doing the Lord’s work, have been trying to point out, now for decades, to little avail. (4)

Heads, for these people, are like boxes at the end of one’s neck, in which we find things called “mental states” that by way of the nerves cause other things that go on in the rest of the body, called “behaviors.”  (They tend not to use the word ‘actions’, as the connotations are too difficult to ignore and risk upsetting the “we’re doing science” cart.)  Funnily – sadly – this isn’t too far from Descartes’ good old lever-and-pulley metaphor, in which the nerves act like bell-ropes and human actions are conceived of in a way that suggests we are like organic marionettes.   That mental states are thought of today in terms of neurochemicals and the nerves as transmitters doesn’t make things better, but actually worse, because it has sent a whole crowd of otherwise very smart people chasing down one rabbit-hole after another trying to figure out how a bunch of neurochemicals can represent something or have qualitative characteristics.  They can’t of course – such characteristics only arise from a point of view – and so the holes always turn up empty.  To explain peoples’ actions is as much to interpret them as it is to do anything of the sort one does, when one accounts for the movements of billiard balls or muscles and limbs, by which I mean it is to render them intelligible, in the sense of understanding them from the actor’s own point of view.

Since our own Paul So’s essay on Compatibilism is what inspired me to write this, let me (very) briefly say something about that view, though I’m afraid it won’t be very nice, either. (5)  Compatibilism is a response to Determinism that treats it as an actual position, and since we should understand now that the question of agency has to do with human actions and our reasons for engaging in them and that there are no actions or reasons or explanations of actions, without agency, it should be quite clear – for all the reasons discussed – that the determinist’s criticism is at best irrelevant and that Compatibilism therefore, is entirely unnecessary.

But, what about these Harry Frankfurt-style thought experiments, the “Frankfurters”? A person wants to vote Democrat, and he does.  A mad scientist has set up a failsafe, such that if the person decides to vote Republican instead, it will make him vote Democrat.  The case is supposed to be significant, because in contemporary philosophical discussions on Free Will, the determinist bogeyman has been largely understood though the idea that if people act freely, they could have acted otherwise, and if Determinism is true, then people cannot act other than the way they acted.  (Got that?) In  this version of the Frankfurter, then, nothing could have happened other than the person voting Democrat (because of the failsafe), but our “intuition” is that the person still acted freely and is properly praised or blamed for what he did, and this is supposed to show that Free Will and Determinism can go together.

It’s a bizarre example.  For one thing, it isn’t true that nothing could have happened other than the person voting Democrat – he might have decided to vote Republican and succeeded, the machine having short-circuited and electrocuted the Mad Scientist instead – but like children and their toys, philosophers will have their thought experiments, so let them have the Frankfurter.  The weirder thing is that it doesn’t address any real challenge to the question of agency, and that’s because in the example – and the discussion in which the example is raised – agency and more specifically, who and what agents and actions are, is completely misunderstood.

The person acted – and thus, has agency – if he voted for a reason.  If he, the person, engaged in the act of voting, for a reason.  And according to the Frankfurter, he did, as the Mad Scientist’s failsafe never went off, and the person intended to vote Democrat.  Had the counterfactual situation obtained, however, and the Mad Scientist’s failsafe gone off, it’s not as if he still would have voted, but against his will.  Rather, though his hands and fingers would have engaged in various motor movements and certain buttons would have been depressed as a result (causal chain!), he would not have been the person who voted.  Rather, the Mad Scientist would have voted, using the person’s body as a proxy.  How do we know this?  Well, for one thing, you could not interpret the person’s bodily movements in light of his reasons – could not comprehend the action from his point of view – as his intentions were to vote Republican.  No, his bodily movements are only interpretable as reflecting the Mad Scientist’s reasons and are thus only intelligible as actions, from his point of view.  And for another, if the whole sordid affair was discovered by the local authorities, the Mad Scientist would be indicted for fraudulent voting, which indicates that as far as the law is concerned, it was he who voted, not the brain-and-body hijacked person.

The whole question of the relationship between agency and whether I could have done otherwise is also misunderstood in the Frankfurter and the discussions in which Frankfurters are deployed.  That I could have done otherwise is a consequence of my agency, not a condition for it.  Alternative possibilities are not like pre-existing roads or a selection of cupcakes, where my agency is defined in terms of my being able to pick one or another, without interference.  Rather, they exist as a result of the fact that when one acts, one does so for one reason or another, and there are many reasons why one might do something.  That’s the kind of things actions are.  So, if I accept the mall minx’s advances, it makes perfect sense for my wife to blame me afterwards and say “You could have done otherwise,” given that rather than acting out of the sort of adolescent longing that accompanies many men’s mid-life crises, I might have acted out of love and loyalty instead or at least, split the difference and gone and bought a sports car.  Of course, replying that I was “caused” would not help me one bit, nor should it.

Notes:

(1) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (John Lane Company, 1908).

http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Gilbert_K_Chesterton/Orthodoxy/index.html (p. 9)

(2) This is essentially Wittgenstein’s account of the reason why relative to any particular inquiry, some propositions will be necessary and not subject to epistemic warrant.  As for the “half-wit” line:

  • 257. If someone said to me that he doubted whether he had a body I should take him to be a halfwit. But I shouldn’t know what it would mean to try to convince him that he had one. And if I had said something, and that had removed his doubt, I should not know how or why.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, tr. by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (1969).  The book is a compilation of Wittgenstein’s extended reflections on G.E. Moore’s essay, “A Defence of Common Sense.”

https://web.archive.org/web/20051210213153/http://budni.by.ru/oncertainty.html

G.E. Moore, “A Defence of Common Sense,”  Contemporary British Philosophy (2nd series), ed. J. H. Muirhead, 1925.

http://selfpace.uconn.edu/class/ana/MooreDefense.pdf

(3)  B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).

https://archive.org/stream/Beyond_Freedom_and_Dignity/Beyond%20Freedom%20&%20Dignity%20-%20Skinner_djvu.txt

(4)  I’ve posted these videos so many times that I should receive royalties.  They should be required watching, before anyone is permitted to work in the philosophy of mind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZx93eov5i4&t (Hacker begins at 1:00.00)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yv_k5uMCpU

(5)  https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/08/is-the-free-will-debate-a-verbal-dispute/

65 Comments »

  1. i always enjoy your essays Daniel. you have an approachable style & informed voice.
    it seems the subject covered, is something that shouldn’t need to have a light shone on to it to bring out the errors, but unfortunately does.
    i agree with you on science’s interference on the, can i say, chaotic elements of man? that man does things that are not easily determined, certainly not measurable, on the whole. it seems to me a sort of wishful thinking: that if we can determine a person’s intention, then it will make the world a better place. like a machine if able to sense the increased heart rate of a passenger, can then determine if they will hijack the plane, when they may have an intense fear of flying, or of somebody hijacking the plane they are getting onto. i don’t know if i’m in the right ball park, but please correct me as i am (i’m sure you can tell) an amateur in philosophical thinking & very keen to learn.

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  2. Damn straight.

    The confusion begins with the view that causal necessity (inevitability) is some kind of constraint upon us. While it is logically correct that all events are causally inevitable, events within the human domain are not inevitable without our active participation, our agency, and our choices.

    We are the final responsible “prior” cause of our deliberate actions. What we choose to do is more meaningfully and significantly controlled by who we are at the time of our choice than by any other cause. And any version of determinism that attempts to eliminate, diminish, or bypass our agency is false. Determinism, to be true, must include all forms of causation, including human reasoning.

    Scientists embrace determinism as a belief that objects and forces within the universe behave reliably and with theoretical predictability. Because of this reliability, we can, by observation and experiment, discover how things work, and gain greater control over our environment.

    But understanding the causes of our behavior does not change the fact that it is still our behavior. And the process of deliberative reasoning that we perform is the final cause of what we deliberately do.

    So it is important what we think and how we feel about things. In order to change our behavior, for example to teach a child or to rehabilitate a criminal, what we think and how we feel must be addressed.

    And one of the worst thoughts and feelings is that we have no control over our lives. And that is the fatalism that the hard determinist is preaching to our children.

    Scientists, you’re welcome to a determinism that includes human agency (fee will) in the total package of causation. But you’ve got to stop lying to our kids that they have no control over their lives and that they are not responsible for what they do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marvin Edwards.
    “So it is important what we think and how we feel about things. In order to change our behavior, for example to teach a child or to rehabilitate a criminal, what we think and how we feel must be addressed. ”

    But we have always done this, we are going to continue to do this; that’s one reason (but very important) why the metaphysical debate, free will vs determinism, is fundamentally irrelevant to the understanding of human behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. danielpaulmarshall:

    That’s very kind of you. Despite my effort to keep the article somewhat light, the point is actually quite subtle and difficult to articulate clearly.

    Determinism alleges that we have no agency, because our actions are caused. Compatibalists then come along and say “That’s OK! One’s action can be caused and one can still have agency.”

    My argument is that both the determinist and the compatibalist make a basic mistake. They think that when we explain actions, what we are doing is similar to what we do in physics — or even physiology — when we explain the motions of bodies. This is what gives the impression that there is a problem. But this isn’t what we are doing at all, when we explain human actions. Rather, when we explain human actions, we are giving peoples’ *reasons* for doing things. And the giving of a reason is not the same as the providing of a cause. To explain something in terms of a cause is to provide an antecedent event that is sufficient to explain/predict a subsequent event. But to explain an action in terms of a reason is to render that action intelligible from the actor’s point of view. A very different type of explanation.

    The problem with the whole free will issue and the positions that come out of it, then, is that it/they misapply the scientific conception of causality to human action. They do this, because they misunderstand what we are doing when we give reasons for our actions. And thus they fail to see that all that agency is, *is* the acting on the basis of reasons.

    If this doesn’t clarify, feel free to ignore!

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    • But the causes of human behavior are significant and meaningful. And the way we think and feel about a problem is the primary cause of our deliberate actions. We cannot say human behavior is “uncaused” and still have the hope of changing it.

      In the case of criminal behavior, for example, psychologists and sociologists are very concerned with the personalities and social conditions that influence choices to commit crime, participate in gangs, experiment with drugs, and so on. And rehabilitation requires both determinism and free will. It addresses the causes of bad choices through counseling, addiction treatment, education, skills training, post-release follow-up and support. The goal of these programs is to restore to the community a person whose thoughts and feelings are changed and who can be trusted to make better choices of their own free will.

      And the rest of us should be concerned with political actions to address the social conditions associated with crimes in our communities. Human beings need reliable cause and effect in order to effect changes in people and communities.

      The problem is when determinism is defined as the absence of free will, rather than the reliable causal background conditions we need to empower our agency.

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  5. Hi Dan, heheheh… another fine essay.

    Here are a couple of quibbles…

    Compatibilism. I would hesitate to say that your argument makes compatibilism *unnecessary*. In the past, I pointed out that if we remove the issue of Free Will… and all power to that!.. that would still leave me a compatibilist about other (more specific) things. Here you have distinguished between agency and physical activity, which to me is similar to the distinction between classical and statistical thermodynamics. One “level” of account may be superfluous, or as you say irrelevant, to another when addressing certain questions at that level, but that does not make them incompatible, or entirely separable across all potential questions. I would argue much scientific investigation into physical activity of the brain, requires accepting compatibility between accounts as they sometimes require agent-level information (reasons) to initiate or conduct studies of particular brain function. This is an irony lost on some scientists who claim to be hard-determinists.

    If I gave up the term as some formal identification of a position, I’d still have to argue for its reality (the accounts are compatible and cannot be used to reject the other)… unless I changed the term to something like complementarism?**

    Scientists. I think it is inaccurate to consider scientists (as a whole) or science (in general) an *important* factor in the Free Will debate. It started as a theological and philosophical problem, and the fact that it didn’t get put away by those fields (and so public interest) by the time science rolled around, is the only reason *some* scientists engage in the discussion. If science wasn’t here it would still be an issue, and if public interest in it dried up you’d see most scientists stop referring to it. As far as I can tell, most scientists don’t care about the debate (even in neuroscience) and when it is appealed to in academic literature (our findings have relevance to the issue of free will!) it is as a way to draw attention (and so funds) to their work, and where found in popular literature it is to be provocative and so bring attention (and funds) to themselves*.

    As it is, philosophical Free Will skeptics (like Greg Caruso) are already seeing the writing on the neuroscience wall, and shifting concern from rote mechanics to agent-level constraints such as “luck”. So going after bad science on the issue is more or less going after the symptom. Not saying it shouldn’t be called out (as you know I appreciate Hacker’s work), just that the main fight lies elsewhere.

    *- To be fair, I think some scientists like Coyne are not necessarily just being provocative, but they are mistaken based on a poor understanding of the issue (philosophically as well as the science which lies outside their exact field).

    **- before posting I saw you had a new comment elaborating your position… You are right that to explain based on cause and to explain based on reason are two separate things. But when they both impinge on the same phenomena, and are both reliable at their level of explanation, accepting that fact is what I take to be compatiblism. The hard determinist is saying because we could achieve a purely causal explanation of an event, everything else (such as agent level reasons) is superfluous and so can be treated as “imaginary”, an epiphenomenon. The compatibilist rejects this and says they are both complete and valid at their own level, and necessary, complementary accounts for a comprehensive understanding (depending on the question). One does not negate the other. Hope that makes sense.

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  6. dbholmes: The “problem” has many sources. But to deny its connection to people like Skinner — and H.G. Wells, even — is just wrong. And regardless, the question of its historical etiology isn’t really relevant to the substantive point, regarding the mistake that people like Skinner — and their far less able successors, like Harris — make.

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  7. dbholmes: One of the main points is precisely that Compatibalism is as wrong as Determinism, for much the same reason. The same way that the anti-skeptic is as wrong as the skeptic. They both misunderstand the issue, but simply fall on different sides of it.

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  8. Great piece.
    But being a poor physicist, I’m puzzled by something else. I always feel that the determinism vs. free will debate is based on a perfectly banal fact. If you’ve done A, it’s impossible to *prove* afterwards that you could have done B instead in the same circumstances.
    The position of a determinist ultimately rests on this banal fact. After all, if we could *prove* that we could have done B in the same circumstances, we would have free will.
    But there’s a snag. My banal fact is a fact when we have free will, and it’s a fact when we don’t. We never can prove that we could have done B, free will or no free will. This suggests to me that the fundament on which determinism rests, is logically independent of free will. It also suggests that determinism isn’t very helpful in debates about free will.

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    • If I may, it may be good to ask WHY would you have done otherwise? Something would have had to be different, either you would have different reasons that outweighed the reasons that caused your original choice, or you had some new facts that had not occurred to you then, or perhaps some new analysis of the issue you were trying to decide, or perhaps a better estimate of the outcomes of the different choices.

      But if everything were the same, the same you, the same issue, the same circumstances then how could you make a different choice than the one you did, and how could you have wanted a different choice?

      The paradox of determinism “versus” free will is based in a deception, a small fraud. It convinces you that inevitability forces you to do something other than what you would have done anyway. But that is never the case.

      What you will inevitably do is exactly identical to you just being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint. It is not something that anyone needs to be “free of”.

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  9. Hi Dan, sorry, I probably should have used a better word than “phenomena”, and an example to make my meaning clear.

    Let’s say an event occurs: a person raises their arm.

    At the agent level, the event is explained with reasons. At the biological level (or lower), the same event is explained by causes. Both explanations are about the same event, though the accounts are very different. That is what I meant. I’m assuming you agree that both levels “occur” during that event, and so are relevant ways to analyze it. If not, then I would be interested in a further explanation.

    “But to deny its connection to people like Skinner — and H.G. Wells, even — is just wrong. And regardless, the question of its historical etiology isn’t really relevant to the substantive point…”

    I did not deny such connections. I agreed that there are problems and that they should be addressed, my point (which I said was just a quibble) is that I don’t see science as having played that *important* a role in the debate, and further, getting scientists (as a whole) on the right track is not going to effect its popularity/longevity much.

    “One of the main points is precisely that Compatibalism is as wrong as Determinism, for much the same reason.”

    I understood that and as you describe compatibilism (which holds for some) that would be accurate. But there are a range of compatibilists and I think the form I was talking about is not only valid (does not make the claim you gave*) but is basically the position one would have to argue for, even if the name is not kept.

    *- “One’s action can be caused and one can still have agency.”
    That is not exactly the claim *I* would want to make about the relation between actions, causes, and agency as you have set them out. The only thing I accept from determinism is that we are in a universe that operates with causal regularity (Marvin gave a nice description of causal necessity in the prior thread). Thus, (this is determinism’s big claim to fame), if you had a 100% physically identical person in the same situation (same exact history at all levels) they would choose to do the same thing every time. Barring potential random factors, I would think that would have to be true, and yet is 100% uninteresting to me and irrelevant to the discussion of Free Will, or if we chuck that discussion, then agency.

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  10. Dwayne Holmes wrote:

    At the agent level, the event is explained with reasons. At the biological level (or lower), the same event is explained by causes.

    = = =

    At the biological level, it’s not the same event.

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    • I believe it is always causes, but the nature of the causes is different. As physical objects, we behave passively according to physical forces imposed upon us (as when falling off a building). As living organisms, we behave purposefully, to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As intelligent species, we behave deliberately, according to our own purpose and our own reasons that allow us to imagine different options and choose among them what we *will* do.

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  11. I hate to recycle these endless arguments, but everyday people recognise that agency comes from a physical substrate, and has endless ways it can be broken. The usual “scientific” arguments against free will come from creeping-excusism. We all agree that something is obviously different about the decisions made by people with focal brain lesions – they have diminished responsibility, their evaluations of reasons is faulty, their actions that harm others are excused. The next step is simply to ask what is the smallest effect such a lesion can have: is there a threshold? A plausible answer is that there is a continuity. Same argument going from severe mental illness down to ordinary variation. The line of thinking stemming from Freud is that the heart has reasons it knows not of.

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  12. Hi Marvin,

    “The confusion begins with the view that causal necessity (inevitability) is some kind of constraint upon us”

    It is a constraint – by definition. When I have my finger poised above “OK” and “Cancel” it seems to me that I could click either “OK” or “Cancel”. But if determinism is the case then at least one of these actions is already impossible, I just don’t know which one. If that is not a constraint then I don’t know what you could mean by the word. I am constrained to one action and one action only, if the world is determinisitic.

    The question seems to me, rather, should it concern me that my intuition about future events might be thus mistaken. Should I be saying to myself, instead of “I wonder which button I should push” I should ask “I wonder which button it is already inevitable that I will push”.

    There is also the question of responsibility. Normally, if you ask someone whether it makes sense to feel guilt or responsibility about something that we could not possibly have prevented they would say “no”. But if the world was deterministic then there would have never have been, nor ever would be anything that we could do that we could have prevented and thus the concept of responsibility or guilt would be empty.

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    • Hello Robin,

      What is inevitable is that, for a purpose which exists only within me, and for reasons that are mine, my mental process of choosing-what-I-will-do will select A rather than B. And, because it was my purpose and my reasons, free of coercion or other undue influence, we humans call that “free will”. That is what will inevitably happen.

      Or, perhaps this will inevitably happen: A person will hold a gun to my head and tell me I must choose B, because that is his will. In this case we humans will recognize that as “being forced to act against my will”, and that my will was not freely formed by me.

      Inevitability applies in both cases. In fact, inevitability, I’m sure you’ll agree, applies in every case, always.

      Because inevitability is a constant, that always applies in all cases, it can be subtracted as an irrelevant triviality. It is not an “undue” influence, but rather a background constant that we can always expect.

      Therefore our two cases are condensed to these:

      For a purpose which exists only within me, and for reasons that are mine, my mental process of choosing-what-I-will-do will select A rather than B. And, because it was my purpose and my reasons, free of coercion or other undue influence, we humans call that “free will”.

      Or, perhaps a person will hold a gun to my head and tell me I must choose B, because that is his will. In this case we humans will recognize that as “being forced to act against my will”, and that my will was not freely formed by me.

      In the movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, the chess master tells his student, “Don’t move until you see it”.

      After you see it, you’ll realize that the fact of universal causal inevitability never comes up, because it has no practical utility and offers no additional information that we can ever put to use in making any decision.

      And that is especially true in the area of responsibility. The “no-free-will” exception to responsibility is meant to cover those special circumstances where we are coerced or subjected to undue influences (hypnotism, mental illness, authoritative command, etc.) which force us to act against our normal will. As soon as you mistakenly apply the exception to all cases, you’ve excused everyone for everything. Doing that breaks the normal operation of the human construct of responsibility.

      So don’t do that. 🙂

      Like

  13. I will believe someone really thinks that having control over our lives is compatible with determinism if they will explicitly tell me that they think they can have control over something that was already inevitable before they were born.

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  14. Hi Dan, this is either a misunderstanding or the beginning of a very interesting discussion:

    “At the biological level, it’s not the same event.”

    By the nature of how my example was written it had to be. I was using “event” to stand for a thing that occurred in the world, which someone might want to understand or study. This term was used to replace “phenomena” (used in my first reply) which has a few more connotations, and (without an example) could be misunderstood.

    I can understand if you mean that researchers at different levels will look at things in different ways and so all *component* sub-“events” will have very different natures (not be the same “events”). But we have to have some way of indicating the focus of our research in a way that is independent of the subsequent research, and which all can be agreed to be about.

    Let me use an analogy. As a neurobiologist, I can treat a biological “event” within the brain at the organ, cellular, molecular, or (electro)physical level and these can/will all be very different accounts (they will not be interchangeable in meaning). So if I use what you seem to be arguing here, I’d have to say no one can identify a single event on which all of those explanations are different ways to investigate/understand it.

    While the difference between agent-level and lower level accounts may be greater than between each of the various lower level accounts (though I am not sure I would agree with that), that would not somehow block pointing to this –> and saying this –> is what we are all trying to explain (at different levels).

    The only way I could think that is possible is if one holds there are all these different things going on with no intersection whatsoever. People are reasoning and acting, completely free of any biological functions that just happen to be going on. And all those biological (organ) functions separate from biological (cellular) activity separate from chemical interactions separate from physical forces.

    There lies madness.

    To me they are different accounts of the same event.

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    • Not sure if this will help you, but Michael Gazzaniga suggested a comparison to computer software and hardware. The brain would be the hardware where the mental processes are running. Reasoning would be like software, that can be run on any number of separate machines. And the machine itself supports any number of different programs serving different purposes.

      Another thought is a book. Someone could write their ideas, and then pass away, and years later someone else could read the book and have his thinking altered by what he reads.

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  15. Dwayne: An action is not identical with some event, though it certainly *involves* an event. I explained why pretty thoroughly in the essay. And there is no “madness” involved in thinking so.

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  16. I read this and watched Hacker’s video. Both were excellent. I have seen this sort of critique of Cartesian thinking in philosophy of mind before, from neo-Aristotle and neo-Thomist types. I’d never thought of Wittgensteinien philosophy having much in common with Aristotle before. Perhaps I was wrong about that.

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  17. Dan, I understood your essay. In none of my replies have I stated or suggested that actions are identical to events, and am not understanding what the source of confusion is.

    I will try one more analogy:

    One can give a social historical account of X, a personal historical account of X, a stylistic (or technique) account of X, a gross materials account of X, a molecular account of X, a symbolic account of X, and a spectral analytic account of X.

    None of those accounts are the same, nor are they all relevant to each other. Concepts of one account are not interchangeable between all accounts.

    And yet… they are not incompatible (the truth or mere existence of one account undercutting the truth of another). They can all point to and be true about X. Which means that X did involve all of those things, regardless how different the conceptual space and subject matter are between accounts. They operate at different levels of explanation and are *compatible* as such.

    In this analogy, X is a specific painting.

    I argued that we have to be able to say (for all accounts) we are talking about this –>, X, which is a painting. It *would* be madness to say that all those accounts cannot be about X, a single thing, a specific painting, just because they operate at different levels (or deal with different conceptual spaces) and so there must be X1, X2, X3, X4, etc. for which there are individual accounts with no relation *at all* to each other.

    This would be as true for objects (like paintings) as for events (as I used that term) which involve active decision making.

    An agent level account is not *identical* with the event (Y), nor is a physical level account. They are different levels of explanation for the same event, Y. Both can be true (both levels occurred), with little to no relevance, or interchangeability of concepts (and subject matter of those concepts) between accounts. That they can both be true about Y is what makes them compatible… or if you would prefer, complementary.

    I hope that helps?

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  18. Hi Robin, nice to see you back…

    “I will believe someone really thinks that having control over our lives is compatible with determinism if they will explicitly tell me that they think they can have control over something that was already inevitable before they were born.”

    I think I have control over something that was already inevitable before I was born.

    Man, that was easy.

    (Seriously though, it all depends on what you mean by “control over our lives” and “inevitable before they were born”. If you mean what I think you mean, it has little to do with compatibilism as I understand it. But I think we went around this before.)

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  19. Dwayne: The painting is a good example. I can give a scientific account of the materials, but not of the painting. Wrong ontological category. The same is true for actions.

    What you are saying is “madness” re: paintings strikes me as pretty much characterizing Danto’s theory of art, which of all of them, is the closest to being correct.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi Marvin

    “And that is especially true in the area of responsibility. The “no-free-will” exception to responsibility is meant to cover those special circumstances where we are coerced or subjected to undue influences (hypnotism, mental illness, authoritative command, etc.) which force us to act against our normal will. As soon as you mistakenly apply the exception to all cases, you’ve excused everyone for everything. Doing that breaks the normal operation of the human construct of responsibility.

    So don’t do that.”

    The fact that the consequences of something might be unpalatable does not make it false.

    I am having trouble with the idea that something might have been inevitable even before I was born for reasons that only exist in me. That doesn’t seem to make sense. If every thing I will ever do in my life was inevitable from before I was born then it suggests that background constants are in play all the time. My forming a reason for an action that couldn’t possibly have been prevented is no more significant than any other factor leading to that action.

    Again, will you say it explicitly – that you see no incompatibility between every single thing you do having been inevitable from before you were born and you having control over them?

    That you see no incompatibility in saying that you had control over something that you never had the possibility of preventing?

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    • Hi Robin,

      You said, “My forming a reason for an action that couldn’t possibly have been prevented is no more significant than any other factor leading to that action.”

      If you had not formed a reason for that action it would have been prevented. If you had not deliberately chosen that reason as the best, better than the reasons for the other possibilities, then it also would have been prevented.

      The control was yours because the action served your purpose and your reasons.

      Outside of you, as you were at that moment, what other objects or forces in the universe had any interest in that action? Did the Big Bang have some reason for you to make that choice? Did the Universe itself have some purpose, separate from your own, that made it force you to make that choice against your will? Is Determinism itself some personality with an interest in what you do and what you choose?

      “Purpose” is uniquely encapsulated in each living organism and its species. It exists nowhere else in the entire universe. “Reasons”, which only in the minds of intelligent species, also can be found nowhere else.

      Your purpose and your reasons are the meaningful causes of your deliberate actions. All other causes are incidental.

      And there’s a small problem with the term “predetermined”. An event may be “inevitable” from any prior point in time. But it cannot be fully caused before it actually happens. If the event requires your choosing to take an action, then it will not happen until you do your thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Postscript: A few weeks ago I walked past a table where someone was giving out free philosophy books. I picked up one about Wittgenstein by Hacker, having no idea who Hacker was. Quite serendipitous, really.

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  22. I have never been able to pass up a chance at being a half-wit or crazy. With those qualifications here is what I’ve digested. This debate will never be resolved, but that is what makes it fun. Our modern faith in science seems to side with the determinist view–even if our actions are not directly based out of cause but for reasons, the existence of the reasons may be caused. But then on the other hand—agency could very well be an emergent property of our physiology. The reality is to test it either way is impossible. So it becomes a matter of faith. Do you trust your faith in science or intuition?

    After reading all this, and considering the main implications of the debate (aside from the purely intrinsic), it seems that the issue at stake is one of justice and responsibility. And therefore I ‘choose’ to go with this position–a belief in agency for myself, as that position best suits my interests. But I leave the possibility of non-agency open to others as I would hate to commit the injustice of judging one too harshly considering they may not be a free agent.

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  23. Hi Dan, I realized I could take your comment one way or the other. If it means you agreed with my point then great and you can ignore the next bit…

    *In case you did not agree*, let me continue with the analogy…

    I do think that an agent level account and a physical level account are different categories, not sure if ontological but I guess I can accept that designation. Trying to explain one level with the concepts of the other as if synonymous would be to make a category error.

    My point was when someone goes to create a “scientific account of the materials”, someone will (have to) ask “What materials?” And someone will have to answer “the materials of *that* painting”, and it mean/refer to the same thing as the person who says “I am giving the social history of *that* painting”.

    I get that the social historian or other agent level accounts can discuss the painting as an abstract, so what is in all the copies of it, or the way people imagine it, etc. but “it” still references the original painting.

    If I were to think otherwise you couldn’t even say “scientific account of the materials” because what are “materials”? Not to mention you could never conduct a scientific test to check it if one painting were an original or a fake… and why would it ever matter?

    ………..

    On Dante, were you saying I was characterizing his theory as “madness” or that my position regarding “madness” was like his?

    If he really thought that there were countless paintings, each account (if at another level) dealing with a different one, that would be bizarre and I would point out (as the point above), there would be no such thing as resolving fakes, and no need to.

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  24. Dwayne: What I was saying was that given your critique, Danto’s theory of art would be “madness.”

    Danto is of the view that artworks are constituted by interpretations. A bunch of plaster isn’t an arm, until it is interpreted as one. This is the peculiar logic of the “is” of artistic identification. It is true of something while being literally false of it.

    I am suggesting quite a similar view of actions. They belong to a fundamentally different ontological category than motor movements — and hence, physical events — because they essentially involve representation. Put another way, something can only *be* an action — not just recognizable as one, but actually *be* one — from a point of view.

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  25. Robin, let’s see if I can solve your conundrum.

    First though, you said “already inevitable before they were born”. That is inaccurate. Determinism doesn’t entail that at all, unless there are no random factors, which there may be. I’m not saying that randomness grants free will or control to anyone, but it does make your challenge a bit strange. We can leave that point aside, but you might want to consider rephrasing your problem.

    To get to the concept of “control” being compatible with inevitability I want to use an analogy involving a much simpler system than a human (or even a cell):

    There is a wire leading to box that contains mechanisms designed to reroute (switch) the flow of electricity to specific output wires, based on the amount of incoming current. Thus the box detects incoming current and selects between various wires to carry the current beyond the box.

    The box had no control over its creation (and so the mechanisms which determine what happens to the current), and has no control over the amount of current that comes in. In a sense the output of the entire system (which end wire selected) will be inevitable.

    And yet, it is perfectly understandable to credit the box (or the mechanisms within) as “in control” of routing current within that system. It is the local physical system “responsible” for routing. If the system has been functioning properly, and suddenly the wrong current ends up on the wrong output wire, we don’t point the finger at the electricity, or any of the wires, much less some event around the big bang. A failure occurred in routing, which has something do with the box (and specific mechanisms within that were working until that point). One can go meta and maybe find a design flaw or a part flaw within the box to explain the failure, but that does not change the fact that it was the box that functioned (or failed) to control (route) the current.

    The analogy can be extended in complexity from there, but this should be sufficient to explain the point. Ascribing “control” for an entity, is about what it was meant/capable of controlling. Your problem requires “control” extend well beyond the scope of people’s lives and decision making capacities.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Hi Dan, mmmm too bad (I read it so positively the first time).

    “A bunch of plaster isn’t an arm, until it is interpreted as one. ”

    Ok so far… and would seem to work with my point. Once interpreted as an arm, one can ask for a scientific account of the materials of “the arm” from those that share/understand that interpretation, right? They would know it is *that* bunch of plaster, identified by all involved as an arm.

    If not, why not?

    And if not, I am not seeing how anyone could ask for a scientific account of anything, even “bunch of plaster” is an interpretation.

    “They belong to a fundamentally different ontological category than motor movements — and hence, physical events — because they essentially involve representation. Put another way, something can only *be* an action — not just recognizable as one, but actually *be* one — from a point of view.”

    You are now using “event” different than I was, but that’s ok. I see what you are saying and what I said above applies here as well.

    Obviously if there was no agreement of what something is at the agent level it would be impossible to move on to any sort of discussion at a different level. Scientific investigations can only occur where there are shared interpretations at the agent-level. This is what I meant when I spoke of the irony that some determinists (who reject the agent level) miss. We agree that X is something, and then conduct tests on physical elements within agreed parameters of our shared interpretation.

    In any case, if you reject both of these responses, I am still wondering how you (or Danto) deal with things like “originals” and “fakes”. This has corollaries with human activity as well.

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    • That’s right, I don’t think there really is a useful hard-scientific — meaning non-social scientific — accounting for action, as opposed to human motor movements. Actions belong firmly to the Manifest Image and are not interpretable in terms of the Scientific Image. And I am much more skeptical than Sellars of the potential of reconciling the images. I also don’t believe that the scientific image is “Primary” in any significant sense. Which one is “primary” depends on the things one is talking about and the questions one is asking.

      With this, I think I have probably exhausted my imagination in terms of ways of replying, so I’ll just leave it at that.

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  27. “Your problem requires “control” extend well beyond the scope of people’s lives and decision making capacities”:

    That is precisely the point. “Given that we have no choice or power over the past and no choice or power over the laws of nature, it is not difficult to see how beta [or the revised beta-2, Huemer 2000, Pruss 2013] enables an argument to the conclusion that no one ever has the ability to do otherwise if determinism is true.”

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    • Inappropriate use of the concept of inevitability tends to break useful operations.

      One of our most useful human operations is to review a past decision, especially one that did not work out like we expected, and consider what we might have done otherwise. During this review we will mentally simulate what may have happened if we had made a different choice.

      It may be that we conclude that we made the best choice we could. Or it may be that next time we’ll want to try choosing a different option, one that we mistakenly did not choose first time around.

      If no one has the ability to do otherwise, then this normal review process cannot be done. That means we cease to review past decisions and no longer consider what we might have done otherwise.

      “Possibilities” and “could have’s” exist within the mind, not in the outside world. Once a possibility is actualized, it becomes the inevitable reality. But for any choosing process to take place, there must be more than one possibility at the outset. “I can choose A or I can choose B” is logically necessary for choosing to happen. And when reviewing these decisions, every “can” becomes a “could have”.

      There is always only one single inevitability. However, there are always multiple possibilities. And the fact that a given “possibility” was not the inevitability does not make it an “impossibility”.

      The inevitability has no rational effect upon any possibility. It is like mixing apples with oranges and then asking how many rabbits you have.

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  28. Hi Dan,

    “I also don’t believe that the scientific image is “Primary” in any significant sense. Which one is “primary” depends on the things one is talking about and the questions one is asking.”

    Definite agreement there.

    “And I am much more skeptical than Sellars of the potential of reconciling the images.”

    We don’t have to continue discussion, but if I understand what you are saying, your position is a bit more strict than Hacker’s. He wrote with a neuroscientist, and in some of the papers as well as his solo videos there can be some limited areas of connection or reconciliation. My position is quite close to what I’ve read and seen of him. And it would seem your position would have to raise questions about how or why things work in different fields, especially medicine, psychology, etc.

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  29. Hi David,

    “That is precisely the point.”

    The point of what? Robin’s challenge was squaring “having control over our lives” with “inevitability”. My argument disentangled those two and showed where the mistake was made. One input, to one output , doesn’t change the fact that the box in my example was in control of determining the output (inevitability, whatever that is, depended on it).

    Concepts like control and responsibility are local and relative, not absolute. This goes way back to my first essay on Compatibilism at Massimo’s old site. Under the argument given by Robin or those authors*, even gods could not be said to have control, nothing could, which is absurd. So one has either made a mistake in defining the parameters of “one’s life”, “control”, or both.

    Here’s a Star Trek analogy:

    KIRK (walking to lift): Okay Spock, you have control of the bridge.

    SPOCK (raising eyebrow, while taking captain’s chair): How can I have control of the bridge, if I do not control all that we will encounter, how the ship was built, how I grew up, Vulcan anatomy, how the universe came into being, and so control over my own life? Everything that will happen on the bridge, Captain, was decided before you and I were born.

    KIRK: Get out of the captain’s chair, Spock.

    Control and responsibility relates to having the capacity to *deal with* what is coming at you, not having predetermined what is coming at you, and predetermined everything about yourself from before you were born.

    People can pretend they believe that we are all just epiphenomenal voyeurs to the great inevitability show, with no meaningful sense of control or responsibility over our lives (our corners of the unfolding universe). But that usually doesn’t survive past a couple quick kicks to the shin.

    *- By the way, I love the fact that those authors had their names placed on *their* articles of how no one could ever have done otherwise, as if that means anything for agency. I would have rejected it and told them it was beyond all our control. Or better yet, publish and put it under someone else’s name. Watch them shift positions damn quick.

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  30. I think it’s unfair to dismiss Sam Harris and his thoughts on Free Will. I think he makes a strong case that our feelings of agency that underlie our intuitions on morality and responsibility do not reflect a veridical understanding of the mind.

    One example he provides to illustrate his position, is the case of two psychopaths who kill a random person, in their own words, “just for the fun of it”. One psychopath, however, has a tumor in his brain the size of a golf-ball, which changed him from being a normal man to a psycho-killer. The other psychopath has no disruptions in his brain and has always been a psychopath. Most people would say the killer without the tumor is evil, while the other is a victim of a tumor. Both, however, have the SAME EXACT SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE. Both men, are thus equally free.

    The definition of agency you have articulated is clearly compatible with determinism, but I think Harris argues compellingly that the sense of agency that underlies many our intuitions is not.

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  31. Disagree with most of this but the Sam Harris point made me laugh.

    Philosophers have never been envious of physicists, if u say otherwise actual examples please.

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  32. Jack:

    Of all the things in the essay to doubt! Half of the analytic philosophical tradition is inspired by science envy. I was in graduate school in one of the top analytic departments in the 90s and with one very notable exception, all the philosophy being done there was heavily naturalistic — either reductionist, eliminativist, or some variety therein.

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  33. According to the Compatibilist described here, actions are caused. However, because events are caused, whereas actions are not, the Compatibilist has to contend that actions and events are identical. But the action-event identity thesis has been rejected in the comments. If we accept the rejection of action-event identity, then the Compatibilist has to adjust his view accordingly.

    On Repaired Compatibilism, the relation between actions and events is not that of an identity, but still close enough for the purposes of Compatibilism. One such suggestion would be a supervenience thesis to the effect that if two worlds are the same physically, they are also the same actionwise. From this it would follow that the evolution of actions in the world are dictated by physical laws. The anti-compatibilist could then either reject determinism in the classical sense (and claim something to the effect that physical laws don’t fully determine the course of events in the world), or perhaps accept determinism about nature but reject physicalism (claiming that the physical state of the world is not the same as the total state of the world). The first alternative is tantamount to anti-deterministic libertarianism, while the second one is to some anti-materialist viewpoint.

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  34. I am late to the party but at least I got there. And what a feast I found! This is Daniel A. Kaufman on top form, a slayer of materialist and deterministic dragons. I chuckled from beginning to end.

    I loved this:
    There still are some desultory Wittgensteinians and other assorted wise-people wandering around the philosophical landscape trying to remind everyone that one could try to understand the relationship between reasons and actions in terms other than those currently fashionable in what passes today for the philosophy of mind, but they are few and far between, and have about as much effect as ghosts whispering things in empty rooms.

    Given his affinity for ghost whispering I nominate Daniel A. Kaufman to be the successor to Dumbledore as the next headmaster of Hogwarts.

    I am a mere Muggle but I swear I could hear ghosts whispering while I read the essay.

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  35. I know that some people claim to lack free will, as is evidenced by some comments. My reply is always the same: they know themselves best and if they claim to be an Automaton then it must be so. Unless Automatons can lie. But that is a contradiction, since Automatons cannot lie, because they cannot have a theory of mind, so I am compelled to believe their claim that they are Automatons.

    It is somewhat unnerving to find there are Automatons in our midst. This raises important questions. Are they persons, deserving of the same respect and rights? Is it worth engaging an Automaton in debate when one knows that his replies are predetermined? How is it possible that Automatons can so uncannily pass themselves off as normal people? Why do Automatons gravitate towards philosophy? What is interesting is that so many Automatons are Humanists. If they possessed a sense of humour they might perceive the sick humour of an Automaton claiming to be a Humanist.

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  36. Next, let’s dismiss problems of relativity because we have Newtonian mechanics, and that tracks folk intuitions way better. The former is really just a category mistake anyway.

    Science is what ultimately explains how we act and make choises.It’s fine to use the manifest image in common parlance, but it doesn’t track what’s actually happening when we act. The reason a person thinks is motivating their action reduces to prior causes – if indeed it’s relevant at all; it may just be a post-hoc rationalization with little connection to what really produced the action.

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    • All joking aside, Massimo Pigliucci and I just filmed a dialogue on the Manifest and Scientific Images for our BloggingHeads.TV show, Sophia, and we talk about the relative “priority” of the two relative to one another. (It should post soon.) Needless to say, I disagree with the idea the Scientific Image is primary, other than relative to certain interests. The same, of course, is true for the Manifest Image.

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  37. Daniel,

    You seem to be assuming that if we make choices for reasons and could make different choices for different reasons then we have free will. That is the sort of free will that could make us deserving of what happens to us as a result of those choices. I take that mostly from your concluding paragraph.

    In that paragraph you have an example of a choice in which you could:

    A) Act out of longing and go off with the mall minx.

    Or

    B) Act out of love and loyalty for your wife and not do so.

    The problem is it just so happens that one of the possible choices is what actually happens and the other isn’t. You can’t deserve what happens to you as a consequence of which is actual because you have no control over this. It can be put like this. You can make a choice but you can’t choose which of the choices you could make, is the actual choice.

    Stephen

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    • Nonsense. I didn’t do it yesterday.

      And good luck with convincing *anyone* that you don’t deserve what you get.

      Philosophy should never be in the business of advancing hopeless theses that no one will ever accept. Hume taught us that. When you get to that point, inquiry has gone wrong.

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  38. Daniel,

    I’ve pointed out that although it’s possible to make different choices for different reasons that doesn’t help with the free will problem. It doesn’t help because it just so happens that one of the possible choices is actual and the others aren’t.

    I hope you won’t go on ignoring the free will problem when talking about free will.

    To say we don’t have the sort of free will you believe in is not hopeless. It allows us to align our morality with the truth about free will.

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    • I’m ignoring nothing. I simply disagree with you. The two are not the same. The essay is chock full of arguments, none of which you actually addressed. All you did was made an assertion, which I disagree with, for the reason I stated.

      For all the reasons stated in the essay, there is no free will problem; not at least if you are talking about human actions and the reasons we engage in them. If you are talking about something else, there may be a problem, but that’s not what the essay is about.

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  39. Daniel

    As I said. What you’ve done is started out with an assumption. The assumption being that if we make choices for reasons and could make different choices for different reasons then we have free will. There is no argument for this at all because the assumption is not discussed.

    I’ve asserted that it just so happens that one of the possible choices is the actual choice and the others aren’t. This conclusion is arrived at by trying to find possible ways it could be false. By choosing which choice is actual? How would we do that? With reasons? You can see that at base these reasons just so happens to be the actual reasons or you set off an infinite regress.

    If you think there is some way out of that, it’s up to you to say what that way is and the essay should be about that. As it is the essay indeed does ignore the free will problem.

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    • Actually, the essay does much more than just assume that, if you understand the Wittgensteinian dimension of it. But, clearly, it did not resonate with you, so I am happy to leave it at that.

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    • As for what the essay “should” be about, as it is my essay, it is I who determines that. You are quite free, of course, to write your own essay and publish it in your own magazine.

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  40. DanK,
    as I remarked in my last comment to my own article on the matter, many people are so committed to the metaphysics in the matter, that discussing the every day realities of it philosophically on a public forum is very difficult (actually, I originally wrote ‘impossible,’ but decided I’d try to write more optimistically). It is interesting to note that at least one interlocutor on my article, and at least one here, and at least one at Plato’s Footnote, chose not to read the articles, let alone their supporting links, at all. Just run up the flag, and the sides come out to battle.

    I don’t know how to solve that problem!

    Just continue the good work; there are some paying attention out there, whatever the commenters write.

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  41. Stephen,
    By choosing which choice is actual? How would we do that? With reasons? You can see that at base these reasons just so happens to be the actual reasons or you set off an infinite regress.

    Just for a moment I was seduced by your argument. Then I asked myself the question – what if there really was libertarian free will? What would happen to your argument? The answer is you could and would make the same argument. Consequently your argument has no discriminatory power and so is not useful in this discussion.

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  42. Landman,
    Science is what ultimately explains how we act and make choises.

    That has never been demonstrated. Can you begin to show how the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth are explained by science, word for word? Good luck. That should be worth five Nobel prizes. But worse, making hopelessly un-demonstrable claims in the name of science is a denial of what science really is and stands for.

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