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A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will


Chapter 1 (Introduction) introduces the main issues of contention regarding free will. Defining types of freedom (from surface to ultimate), how freedom relates to responsibility, how determinism and necessity threaten (or don’t) free will, choices/could-have-done-otherwiseness and their relation to free will, and lastly how modern science changes our conception of free will.

Chapter 2 (Compatibilism) describes the views of compatibilists (Dennett, Hume, Mill). Compatibilists say that determinism and free will are compatible. They argue this by saying that what we normally mean by freedom, or the freedom worth having, is made up of 1) the power or ability to make some decision, and 2) an absence of constraints like physical restraints, coercion, or compulsion. The ability to do otherwise is accounted for not by indeterminism, but by the ability to do otherwise if one wanted to. I can eat or not eat a pie, if I want to, therefore I am free to eat it and do otherwise, and free from constraints. Therefore I have freedom of will regarding eating my pie.

Some think of freedom as the ultimate power to do choose, free from even desires, moods, character, etc. Compatibilists say that such freedom is incoherent, because it would entail that to be free, one may act totally contrary to her desires, beliefs, and everything that would appear to determine a choice. This is the opposite of true freedom.

Lastly, the chapter answers common misunderstanding that lead to objections to free will. People mistakenly think that such a view entails constraint, control, fatalism, or mechanism. It doesn’t. Kane agrees that such objections result from misunderstandings, and goes on to say that a correct objection would have to show that determinism in itself is a challenge to the possibility of free will, not because it entails the other objections.

Chapter 3 (Incompatibilism) outlines the major argument against compatibilism, the consequence argument. Shortened:

1) There is nothing we can now do to change the past and the laws of nature. 2) Our present actions are the necessary consequence of the past and the laws of nature
3) There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature and nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions are the necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
4) There is nothing we can do to change the fact that our present actions occur (i.e. we cannot ever do otherwise).
5) If we cannot ever do otherwise, then there is no free will.
6) Therefore there is no free will.

The real work goes into defining the bolded “can” above. If we take that can to mean how compatibilists take it, then there’s no problem. They define can as “would have done otherwise if we had wanted to). So we could change our present actions, if we had the desire to do so, refuting premise four.

Indeterminists respond by saying that this definition of “can” doesn’t work. If you took someone’s power to desire something away (I cannot ever desire chocolate ice cream because I get a lobotomy), then of course we “can’t” choose chocolate. But by the compatibilist definition, I still “can” choose chocolate ice cream, because I would if I wanted to.

This seems to be a clear case of where tabooing the word “can” would be appropriate. Sure, by some definitions I “can” choose the chocolate ice cream. By others, I “can’t.” There is no “true” meaning of can or can’t that would resolve this debate. Reality is the same either way one argues.

What matters is what type of freedom is worth having. I think the compatibilist one is the winner in this case.

Chapter 4 (Libertarianism, Indeterminism, and Chance) outlines the libertarian position. Kane defines them as incompatibilists that believe in free will. So determinism and free will are not compatible, and they think free will exists, therefore determinism is false.

Libertarians need to both argue that free will is in fact incompatible with determinism, and  also that indeterminist free will is coherent. Kane lists 8 problems with indeterminist free will that must be surmounted. They all look pretty much like the arbitrariness/randomness problem that Thomas Pink described.

The chapter ends with the common escape plan. To get away from this, people tend to posit something “outside” of the random/determined. Something that is neither determined by past causes, but not indeterminate either. The different extra-factors are the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter 5 (Minds, Selves, and Agent Causes) introduces the attempts to escape the arbitrariness problem. One way is to be a dualist, and say that something non-physical/outside of the laws of nature is the source of the free will choice. This doesn’t escape the problem though. Because one may say that the choice is “determined” by the non-physical thing and it’s non-physical laws, otherwise it would appear to be random as well. The same problems exist for a non-physical source of a choice as a physical one.

Kant’s noumenal self, and agent causation are both other attempts, but they don’t solve the question. Instead they hide it in a black mystery box, and say that whatever the source of the non-random, non-determined choice is impossible to see by science, or totally different and unknown and mysterious. Mostly starting with the conclusions, and reasoning backwards as far as possible, before stopping at a black box filled with the rest of the unanswered questions.

Chapter 6 (Actions, Reasons, Causes) explores alternate ways to be libertarian. They all end up mysterian, or simply claiming their truth by stipulation, and doing no actual explanatory work.

Chapter 7 (Is Free Will Possible? Hard Determinists and Other Skeptics) looks at the third main party of the debate, the hard determinists who think free will and determinism are incompatible, and side with the truth of determinism, ruling out free will. Some of these had determinists actually allow the possibility of indeterminism due to modern physics, but still rule out free will on conceptual grounds.

One basic argument against free will is that it would require humans to be an ultimate cause of themselves, which is severely implausible. To be ultimately responsible, one would need to cause everything that led to one’s actions. Then, one would need to cause everything about oneself that led to that cause, and so on to infinity.

Kane looks at different views of crime and punishment giving hard determinism. Some in this camp say that the retributive idea of justice must be given up, but reforming/deterring criminals and protecting non-criminals are still good reasons for the justice system. Some say love is suddenly not as wonderful since it is not “freely” given. But I don’t see how such “freely” (randomly?) given love would be worth more than love that is determined by something. Lastly, some toolbag named Smilansky thinks people must maintain the illusion of free will or chaos will reign. I just scoff at that. I Smilansky can somehow refrain from killing people for fun, then I don’t see why others can’t do the same. I also think he’s flat out wrong that love and justice lose their meaning given determinism.

Chapter 8 (Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities) introduces the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) which states that “Persons are morally responsible for what they have done only if they could have done otherwise.” It then goes through a bunch of examples (Frankfurt examples) and examines when the person intuitively seems morally responsible. It almost seems like a waste of time. Why should my base intuitions be the ultimate guide to whether someone is morally responsible? It seems like many of these philosophers have conflicting ones. Why not find the reasons that exist to hold someone responsible, and see if those reasons apply? I suppose it’s outside of the scope of this book to solve morality. It seems like this chapter helps show why some people think philosophy is a huge waste of time.

Chapter 9 and 10 cover some alternative compatibilist theories of free will. It all gets rather frustrating because they seem to rely nearly totally on looking at thought experiments (Frankfurt style) and thinking “does this seem intuitively like freedom?” Why would our intuitions be a good judge in these unbelievably contrived examples? And if we don’t want to call some scenarios “free,” what difference does it make in the end? When we’re looking at moral issues, or responsibility, or blame, etc., none of these theories of free will do a good job of actually connecting the concepts of freedom with the outcomes. Instead, it’s all about “does Black intuitively seem blameworthy?” Seems to be a pretty bad way of judging moral matters.

Chapter 11 (Ultimate Responsibility) explores some further strategies that libertarians make to maintain their lame view. It looks at alternate possibilities and ultimate responsibility, and explores the claim that both are necessary (but not sufficient) for free will. Ultimate responsibility is not compatible with determinism, because at some point the agent needs to be the ultimate determinant of the outcome, not past events.

There is also the regress problem- one must be the cause of the choice. One must also be the cause of being the cause of the choice. And so on. If at any point one is not the cause the cause of the cause, then one is no longer ultimately responsible. Kane says that indeterminism can somehow break the regress. I’m not buying it.

Austin-style examples show that indeterminism and AP are not sufficient for free will.

Chapter 12 (Free Will and Modern Science) looks at how sciences like quantum physics and neuroscience affect our view of free will. Quantum theory is supposed to introduce indeterminism, but Kane points out that this alone does not lead to free will. Also, at the level of neurons, the indeterminacy is almost negligible. So Kane adds chaos theory, the idea that tiny changes can cascade into large changes, to leave some chance for quantum changes to actually matter.

It’s maddening how many extra assumptions are necessary to make this possibility even possible. And even if a quantum fluctuation led to a different choice, that still does not lead to free will. It is still the opposite of the “free will worth having.”

Another frustration comes in the form of the “parallel processing” example. A person has two conflicting desires, and it is not determined which is to be chosen. Kane is trying to argue that it is not random or arbitrary when one occurs, but he doesn’t actually solve the arbitrariness problem. The decision is “willed” either way and has reasons either way, but there was nothing determining which of the two occurred. It is still arbitrary, even if there were reasons for both actions, and the person ends up willing whichever is chosen. Why did she will A over B? No reason. It’s arbitrary. Kane seems to be hiding the same bad arguments under more philosophical and scientific baggage. It also seems to be pure philosophical speculation.

Chapter 13 (Predestination, Divine Knowledge, and Free Will) relates free will to God’s attributes. If God knows everything that will happen, doesn’t that mean that people are not free to do otherwise? If their decisions were indeterminate, then it would seem there would be no fact of whether we would do A or not-A. But that messes up God’s foreknowledge.

There’s a lame response by Augustine, saying that foreknowledge doesn’t cause the future events. I remember someone who made this point over and over as if it was relevant. So what? That doesn’t mean that events are indeterminate. If free will needs the libertarian ability to do otherwise, knowing the fact of whether A or not-A is freely chosen beforehand is a contradiction.

Boethius and Aquinas try to escape by claiming that God is eternal, meaning outside of time. That means he doesn’t foreknow what will happen. He sees time as one cooccurring block. Again, so what? The block seems just as determinate. There are the same problems. If God eternally/extemporally knows the events of the universe, there is still no room for indeterminate freedom.

Molinists came up with “middle knowlege” which is basically a way of labeling the problem away. God knows what is necessarily true, and what might happen. He also knows which contingent things are true. Molinists say that between these two is “middle knowledge” which is knowledge of what people would freely do in different situations.

But saying God has middle knowledge just begs the question. It’s middle knowledge that is presumably incoherent. Molinists just label it middle knowledge, and say God has it. Not a solution as far as I can see. By their own words they are basically saying it is “magically and mysteriously” true. “The third type is middle knowledge, by which in virtue of the most profound and inscrutable comprehensions of each free will, God saw in His own essence what each such will would do with its innate freedom. . .” It seems to be a case of arguing from assumed “facts” of prophecy, and God’s omniscience.

And then open theists strip away some of God’s knowledge, making him arguably not all-knowing. This seems to be the most honest approach of the lot.

Chapter 14 (Conclusion: Five Freedoms) is a nice summary of the entire book. Three compatibilist definitions of freedom and two incompatibilist ones are examined. Freedom of self-realization and reflective self-control seem to be the most plausible and satisfying freedoms. These are the classical and new compatibilist views of freedom. The third compatibilist freedom, that of self-perfection, seems to take away too much responsibility for bad acts. People are only responsible for the good ones. Not too convincing.

Freedom of self-determination and self-formation are the libertarian freedoms, and they both seem to suffer from the flaw of arbitrariness and incoherency.

Final Thoughts: It seems like a great deal of this debate could be passed over if we just tabooed our words, and acknowledged that in some senses we are free, and others we are not. Of course there is a more factual debate about what kind of freedom is worth having, and where things like moral condemnation and responsibility come from. On these views I much more side with the compatibilists. They seem to provide reasons for punishment and rewards and praise and blame that are simply assumed by libertarians, but are never really grounded in anything.

  1. Thanks for sharing this, this is a great overview of the arguments.

    • Thanks! I was probably less than fair to a few stances I found annoying though.

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