Free will and “privilege”

Oliver Burkeman is a Guardian writer based in New York, and his new column at the site may upset a lot of readers, though I’m not quite sure. Click on the screenshot to go to his short piece. 

Burkeman was apparently greatly influenced by a 2011 BBC edition of the “In Our Time” program (the 500th show) featuring Simon Blackburn, Helen Beebee, and Galen Strawson, all professors of philosophy at British Universities. You might want to hear the 32-minutes show here (click on screenshot):

It’s a very enlightening and informed discussion, and particularly interesting in how the discussants deal with the idea of “moral responsibility”. All three philosophers save Beebee are determinists: she argues that science is a long way from determining whether determinism is true, though I think she’s dead wrong here. As Sean Carroll notes, the laws of physics of everyday life are completely understood, and to me that means that determinism is correct (save for the possibility of true quantum indeterminacy, which can’t play a role in any meaningful notion of human agency, since we have no control over our electrons).

Both Beebee and Blackburn evince various degrees of “compatibilism”: that there are some notions of free will that are compatible with determinism. But none of the discussants espouse any form of contracausal free will: that at any time, you could have done something other than what you did. Blackburn’s compatibilism, for instance, includes the idea that using the word “ought” confers a degree of moral responsibility on an action, and ergo frames a form of free will. “You ought to be nicer to Sam,” is somehow taken as an indication of moral responsibility and thus free will, though the connection is not obvious to me.

I’ve been accused, for instance, of being a compatibilist by using the word “ought”. But to me that the word is shorthand for the idea “if you want good consequence X, you should do action Y, and if you don’t, you can be called out.” I see no sense of agency in using that word, or that it plays a role in any form of free will that’s meaningful. Rather, using “ought” is just telling someone that actions have predictable consequences, and you can be shamed/punished/jailed for not doing something that promotes good consequences. On a non-moral level, it’s like telling someone who’s never used a wrench that “if you want to make the nut tighter, you ought to turn the wrench clockwise.” Why does that not limn a free will for wrenches?

In other words, in a decision having consequences for other people, you can be  responsible in a way that leads to useful societal approbation or disapprobation, but not morally responsible, which to me means that when you do a bad act, you could have done the good alternative. All this, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be praised or scorned, for those actions tend to promote consequences that we think are good for society.

Burkemann seems to have grasped what is ineluctably true: whatever credit your claim for your accomplishments, it all comes back to factors over which you have no control. Again, this does not make blame or praise useless, it just means that the individual wasn’t able to make libertarian choices that determined his or her success or failure.  That should make us think twice about what we’re really doing when we give praise or blame, and that’s what Burkeman’s concerned with in his essay (my emphasis):

On and on it goes: whatever your station in life, you got there by following some course of action. But even if that course of action were wholly your doing, you still had to be the kind of person able to pursue it; and even if you became that kind of person by the sweat of your brow, you still must have already been the kind of person who could raise that sweat…

Eventually, working backwards, you will reach some starting point that can’t have been your doing. The troubling conclusion is that the person born in poverty, with no parental support, who scrimps to put himself or herself through college, finally achieving success through ceaseless suffering, owes their triumph no less to luck than, say, Eric Trump does. Or, as Strawson pithily puts it: “Luck swallows everything.”

Among other things, this has interesting implications for the way we talk, these days, about “privilege”. Some people undoubtedly have advantages over others thanks to their gender, race or class. But if it’s true that luck swallows everything, there is also a sense in which differing degrees of privilege are the only thing there is: your social situation is a matter of luck, but then so are your underlying skills and character.

We should fight, strenuously, to make society less sexist and racist. But the result won’t be a world in which accidents of birth matter less; it will be a less sexist and racist society, in which accidents of birth still account for everything.

I realise that plenty of people, some much smarter than me, don’t buy this view of free will at all. I’ve never been able to find a flaw with it, though. It’s dizzyingly unsettling, but that’s just my tough luck.

The connection between determinism and the social-justice notion of “privilege” is one worth exploring, though I haven’t really begun to think about it. In one sense determinism does vindicate these notions of privilege, for whether someone has a Y chromosome or not, or is born with darkly pigmented skin, is something over which they have no control. Insofar as those factors lead to different life outcomes when they’re just “accidents” (I hope my meaning is clear here), equality of opportunity and treatment seem obvious consequences. But this is also true for wealth, social class, brains, and everything that leads to differential success or failure in life. Thus we can sensibly speak of the “privilege” that comes from being born to a two-parent family, a wealthy family, or a family that prizes education. Indeed, we also have “undeserved” privilege conferred by our genes: whether we’re born smarter or better looking or more athletic.

This leads to an infinite-dimensional intersectionality in which all forms of undeserved “privilege” should be battled: not to make everybody’s life outcome in society equal, but to ensure that everybody gets the same chance to succeed.  Why one form of privilege, say “whiteness” or “maleness” should get more attention than others depends on whether those traits are the most important in determining equal opportunity as opposed to, say, factors like parental wealth, intelligence social class.

That is all above my pay grade, but, as Burkemann notes, we’ll never have equality of outcome, for we’ll always have winners and losers. All we can do is ensure equal opportunity. But that in itself is a huge social task, and it must begin at birth.

h/t: Arno

156 Comments

  1. Liz
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    So moral responsibility is something that does *not* exist due to determinism? Even if we say determinism is absolutely true and even if true quantum indeterminacy would still not “allow” for us to have any control over our electrons, how is the perception (erroneous perception) that we do have the ability to make choices irrelevant? I’m not so sure we even have a decent definition of what morality is in the first place. What exactly is morality?

    • rom
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      The concept of morality exists.

      Are you going to argue that certain patterns of molecular behaviour are more moral than others?

      We make choices … but choices are not what they seem.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      I’ll bite. Morality is the set of beliefs shared by the people in a society regarding the rightness and wrongness of actions by people in the society. It varies across societies and over time, but it is an identifiable and existing thing. It is also a word misused by people attempting to give greater weight to their own peculiar beliefs about the rightness and wrongness of human actions.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:07 am | Permalink

        Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. Oscar Wilde

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        “Morality is the set of beliefs shared by the people in a society regarding the rightness and wrongness of actions by people in the society.”

        No, that’s ethics. Until modern times slavery was ethical, which is apparently why Jesus* didn’t condemn it, but slavery has always been immoral.

        * – Jesus is a character in a very old book and may or may not have actually existed.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      ” how is the perception (erroneous perception) that we do have the ability to make choices irrelevant?”

      It is irrelevant (or has to become irrelevant) due to the new knowledge of the underlying physical laws that rule our behaviour. This new knowledge doesn’t allow us to continue with our wrong perceptions of ourselfs as autonomous agents.
      The situation is simliar to that time when people had to learn and to accept that they weren’t created by god but shared the same ancestors as primates do.
      So when we know we are just biological-robots we cannot treat other people as they would own agency. We have to find new ways and solutions to adapt us to the the knowledge we have today about ourselfs.

      • Liz
        Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        I don’t think the situation is similar to people learning that they weren’t created by god. There is no god in this argument for one thing.

        “This new knowledge doesn’t allow us to continue with our wrong perceptions of ourselves as autonomous agents.”

        We can learn that we aren’t truly autonomous agents but it still will feel like we are. How is learning about going to change anything?

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:56 am | Permalink

          “We can learn that we aren’t truly autonomous agents but it still will feel like we are. ”

          I disagree, a little bit. It maybe in the very moment of acting or thinking I still have the “feeling” of agency but after done or thought something I know, that I couldn’t done otherwise. And only that is important.
          Let me compare it to this: If you are watching when the sun arises above the horizon or goes down even if you enevitable still have the impression of a an up or down of the movement by the sun you know that is not the case. And you can adjust your behavior according to this knowledge (You haven’t to fear, the sun could “decide” not to come back the next day if you are not worship the sun as our ancestors 5000 ys ago may have thought or felt. )
          Therefore it is not so important what we feel in the very moment of acting and thinking, important is, what we know after things happened (nobody could have done otherwise.)
          Another example: A woman finds out her husband cheated on her. She knows, there is no free will therefore she recognizes it is senseless to reproach him; she knows he could not do otherwise but cheat on her. So what can she do? She should consider about the likelihood that he will do it again (did it happen for the first time or not, was it just a quick affair and so on).
          Incorporating knowledge about the absence of free will into people’s choices and considerations will change their behavior, just as no atheist will fear more that his sins bring him into everlasting purgatory.

          • Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

            There is another argument as to why it is unimportant if we perceive ourselves as agents, or feel agency:

            All you feel, what you become aware of, is a kind of post-awareness of what milliseconds were previously fabricated by the neurons.
            You are only the spectator of a performance that has already been staged in the network of your nerve cells.

          • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            So are you really saying that the lady shouldn’t bother telling her husband, “You ought not cheat. It is a bad thing for the children!” I really don’t see this change in behavior brought on by knowledge of determinism.

            • Posted April 30, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              Of course, the lady can or should confront her husband with the truth (but there may also be those who prefer not to tell and to keep the knowledge, to see how things develop further …)
              That’s not the point, but she can not reproach him. this way: “How could you do that! You’re a mean, worthless … xxx. If you really loved me, you would not have done that!”
              And here, in the latter case, a wife enlightened by the knowledge of the non-existing free will could say to herself:, “My assumption that he can not love me because he was cheating on me may or may not be right.
              My husband could not help but cheat on me, but maybe my guess is wrong and he loves me as much as he did before.
              Neuronal processes in his brain have caused him to have an affair whatever the circumstances were. I can not blame him for cheating on me. I have to deal with this fact and consider whether I can imagine a further future with him or not.”

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                The ability to place blame seems to be at the center of things here. You and others say that the lady shouldn’t blame the cheating husband because he couldn’t have done otherwise. I say that the lady should go ahead and blame him. If he replies, “Honey, I couldn’t have done otherwise.” then she’s perfectly in her right to say that she also couldn’t have otherwise than to blame him for his bad behavior. Similarly for all that blame entails.

                This is the problem I have with the “couldn’t have done otherwise” argument. Since everyone can use it, it loses all significance. It’s like saying “My atoms made me do it!” It is true but not going to get you off the hook.

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                “You and others say that the lady shouldn’t blame the cheating husband because he couldn’t have done otherwise.”

                No, you misunderstood me here: Of course the woman can still blame the husband for cheating on her. She can blame him like one can “blame”
                a landslide for destroying a building, or one can “blame” the lightning for burning down the house or one can “blame” the cow, for fatally injuring a hiker who happens to walk past her meadow.
                But in the same way that we have learned that we can not expect the landslide, the lightning or the cow to be able to do otherwise, we must also learn that the same is true of the behavior of humans applies.
                Dont’t forget that a few millennia ago, people saw responsible actors in the lightning bolt or in the cow that injured a human being. But knowledge, science, changed their minds, their expectations, and their reactions to it.

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

                I meant “blame” as in how one normally blames a person for their behavior, not the landslide version which is about causality rather than will.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I suspected you meant “blame as in this way as one “normally blames” someone. But this kind of “normally blame”, which contains the assumption of the possibility of doing otherwise, can no longer be upheld and justified with today’s knowledge.
                In earlier times (Middle Ages), animals were normally blamed too by the society, they were brought to the court and convicted.
                In no other country in the world is this happening today, because everywhere the realization prevailed that animals were not able to act otherwise.
                Also with regard to homo sapiens, the realization will prevail that he is “innocent” in relation to his actions. That does not mean that one should not protect the community from its dangerous specimens of the human species, just as one also captures dangerous animals that roam in the open air.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                I must disagree. For details, see my other comments on this post.

                However, the issues you mention about whether animals and people deserve to be blamed is still an issue. It just has nothing to do with determinism or the meaning you attach to “couldn’t do otherwise.” My definition of free will and “couldn’t do otherwise” lives in the world of human (and animal) affairs and doesn’t extend into the underlying physics model where determinism lives. The reason for this is that we have no access to the information at this level.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

                So you prefer to fool yourself by continuing to believe that the behavior of human beings would not be governed the laws of physics – because “we have no access to the information of this level”- ?
                What is “this level” we have no information of ?
                It seems to me, that you doesn’t know, that one don’t need to understand every single part of a system if one understand the underlying laws of the system.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                Of course I believe that we’re governed by the laws of physics. However, this particular aspect of physics (determinism or indeterminism) does not impact the realm of normal human behavior. Since we have no access to the future that is determined for us, there’s no reason to worry about it.

                All our atoms and molecules are bouncing around but there’s no reason we need to consider that when telling a spouse not to cheat or when blaming a spouse for cheating.

                “Couldn’t have done otherwise” can be claimed regardless of whether people punish each other or not. If you recommend not punishing people in some situation, let it be for reasons other than determinism.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                “Of course I believe that we’re governed by the laws of physics.
                However, this particular aspect of physics (determinism or indeterminism) does not impact the realm of normal human behavior.”

                How can you say this?
                Don’t you really not see the great contradiction you have made by these two sentences?
                If we are governed by the laws of phyiscs then there is no realm, nowhere, not a tiny little one in which the the deterministic or indeterministc aspects of physics don’t have an impact.
                And for the same reason you cannot call the supremacy of the physical law “a particular aspect” that is simple an oxymoron. If physical laws rule everything then you cannot dismiss them as just an “particular” aspect, since they are the most important, everything determinant aspect, from which nobody can escape of.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

                By “particular aspect” you can merely substitute “particular physical law”. Some laws of physics intrude on our daily lives more than others. As to the larger question, it looks like we’re not going to agree.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

                “Some laws of physics intrude on our daily lives more than others.”

                We all are determined by the same laws of physics. And as parts of macrophysics we can be sure that there is not one tiny little hole in our every day life in which we can hide from these deterministic laws.

              • Liz
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

                I agree with paultopping below in that there is a problem with shifting the responsibility to the atoms/determinism. The husband and wife might have had a conversation about getting married and what they were both hoping to benefit from it: companionship, someone with whom the other could save for retirement with, sex, children, a tax break, someone who could help shovel the driveway and cook with, vacations, someone to take care of the other when they are sick, someone to have monogamous sex with because there are stds in the world, etc. Two things: 1. This woman probably wouldn’t use the knowledge of non-existing free will to say to herself that “he loves me just as much as ever because he truly could not have done otherwise.” She would be wondering if they are going to have to get an expensive divorce, where the kids would live, how they would redistribute their retirement savings etc. The second thing is that the conversation agreeing to marriage and everything that they discussed would have been a conversation and verbal agreement that would have happened anyway. Neither could have done otherwise during the conversation and agreement to be loyal if that’s what they agreed. So if that’s the case, why would determinism come into play just because he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain? Where was determinism when they were discussing and agreeing to marriage? They couldn’t have done otherwise in terms of getting married and he couldn’t have done otherwise also, so isn’t it just all irrelevant? Reality is that the two of them would have to discuss based on what they understand between each other.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

                “why would determinism come into play just because he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain? Where was determinism when they were discussing and agreeing to marriage?”

                Of course, determinism was always there, even when they decided to marry.
                The fact that determinism first becomes relevant to a man’s misconduct is simply because there is a difficult problem now and the usual moral charges in such situations as adultery towards another partner are based on the false assumption that the other, if only he had wanted, would been able, not to commit adultery.
                But he had to because he could not escape the physical laws that governed his behavior.
                The woman can refrain from making him a scene and bombarding him with reproaches, she can focus on the fact that her husband is capable of adultery. So she can spare time and energy and start immediately when she discoverd the affair to think about what she’s doing with that knowledge

                A dog breeder would have beaten a puppy in the 19th or even in the 20th century, who did not obey as quickly as his siblings, often angrily.
                Today, however, breeders know that puppies respond to such methods with little or no improvement in their behavior. Today, they know this puppy can not do otherwise, his development is slower and his behavior is determined,

                Even a spouse will be able to learn to judge the other’s failures in a different way , he will understand that the other did not act intentionally or out of free will, and will adjust his reactions and his behavior due to his knowledge of the underlying physical laws like the breeders did with their new treatment of the puppies.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, but this is nonsense. The reason it is bad to beat the misbehaving puppy is that it probably doesn’t understand why it is being punished, there was no prior agreement made with it on its expected behavior, the beating is likely to simply make the puppy fearful of its owner, and we consider it unethical to cause unnecessary pain to higher (conscious?) animals. It has nothing at all to do with determinism. Certainly the changes in the last few centuries you refer to didn’t happen because the public accepted determinism.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                You have not to tell me why it is bad to beat a puppy, I know that.

                What you didn’t understand from my post though it is written there that is breeders 200 years ago considered the ” bad” behavior of their dogs as acted intentionally, as if they would have acted arbitrary, by free will and therefore they had to be punished – in the court by a judge or in others cases by the breeder.
                Even if not one of today’s breeders is using the words “determinsm” or free will, they know, that there is a determining frame in which the dogs can act only and that they therefore are not legitimated to blame or to punish the puppies.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                No, I did understand about the breeders 200 years ago. There were all sorts of bad ideas around back then. I suspect that they will say the same about our ideas 200 years hence.

                I gave my reasons for today’s dog breeders attitude on the subject and I stand by them. Not punishing puppies is good policy for lots of reasons, none of which have a whit to do with determinism. I understand and support the drive for more humane treatment of puppies and prisoners but we have the necessary justification to improve that without resorting to fundamental physics. That said, none of these reasons will matter to the Trump administration so there’s that.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

                “There were all sorts of bad ideas around back then. ”

                What you call “bad ideas” I would call lack of knowledge or false assumptions about the nature of animals.
                Today there is scientific knowledge about genes and evolution by which our behavior to them has been influenced and changed.

          • Liz
            Posted April 30, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

            “Another example: A woman finds out her husband cheated on her. She knows, there is no free will therefore she recognizes it is senseless to reproach him; she knows he could not do otherwise but cheat on her.”

            I do not understand how someone can say that we don’t have moral responsibility and use this as an example of how that should play out at the same time. It’s so abstract. It’s just so abstract. I don’t know.

            • Posted April 30, 2018 at 11:37 am | Permalink

              Just see my answer to paultopping, maybe there is (partly ) an answer to your question.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    All very interesting to consider but there is at least one additional item and probably more to add in. The environment around you can play a large part in this outcome for the individual. It can sometimes make all the difference in success or failure regardless of you privilege. Timing is part of this environment. Consider the phenomena of a Donald Trump. Could this happen 50 years ago? Or the principle figures of our revolution. How about Abraham Lincoln? Often the time and environment has as much to do with the person and their outcome as the DNA or personal privilege. Luck can always play a part but there are many reasons for outcomes.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      “Timing is part of this environment. Consider the phenomena of a Donald Trump. Could this happen 50 years ago?”

      I just finished Jake Tapper’s novel “The Hellfire Club” set in Washington DC in the early 50s when Eisenhower was president and Joe McCarthy was on his witch hunt for Communists. Having been a a young college age person during that time I witnessed McCarthyism firsthand. But, I learned a great deal more about that period from this book that I hadn’t known. It sounds as though politics functioned much the same then as now, with the exception of a president Eisenhower instead of tRump. I heartily suggest you read it.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        I saw Trapper on TV this morning talking about the book. Sounds like a good one.
        But was not Eisenhower a war hero and essentially a made for president individual come 1952. The idea of Trump for president even in the Reagan era would not have gone down. McCarthyism and the guy, tail gunner Joe, did make a lot of noise but he was a damaging nut case which soon became apparent and they got rid of him. In those times, the same result would apply to Trump and that is my point. In today’s politics there are no boundaries. And my other examples are at least worth a thought. Had Lincoln been born 50 years later he would have just been another good lawyer and his greatness would never be known.

        • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

          Was “Trapper” a typo or a subtle comment on Jake Tapper’s interviewing technique?

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

            That was a typo. Could have been a reference to a character on MASH as well.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      “Happiness can always play a role, but there are many reasons for the results.”

      You confuse and mix the levels; the fact that time and circumstances affect how someone develops is not doubted by anyone.

      Quote: “Your social situation is a matter of luck, but then your underlying skills and character.

      That is, if there is no free will, then all that a person is, his personality, as well as all the circumstances in which he lives, is due to chance (luck or bad luck).

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        corr: *luck* (not happiness, mistake due to google translator …

  3. CHARLES A SAWICKI
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    If it isn’t contra causal free will, it isn’t free will! Attempts to give convoluted compatibility arguments are just redefining free will away from the long-held meaning.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      The compatibilist meaning also has a long history.

      • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Here we go again. If you survey people in various countries, “free will” is taken 70-85% of the time to mean “contracausal free will”. That is the commmon meaning, and how the term is commonly understood. Why don’t you convince those people who “misunderstand it” about the real meaning and long history of other construals of free will?

        • Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          Is that not what compatibilists from Hume on have been trying to do?

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

          If people misunderstand causality (and they do), that could be a crucial reason why they think free will has to be contra-causal.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      In my view, the compatibilist definition of “free will” IS contracausal free will. It’s just that the scope of “could have done otherwise” is limited to the level of human affairs and is not a reasonable statement at the level of fundamental physics and determinism.

  4. rom
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I do think we “should” be aware when we use words like ought and should.

    When I catch myself using these words I try to remind myself the origin of where the desire is coming from. – My brain and ultimately my environment (including my genetics). Ought and should are motivators for myself and for others to get something I want.

  5. FB
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Maybe brains had to evolve to believe, above everything else, in agency (a thunder, a spider, a lion, a human, a robot). “Agencism” could be the mother of all beliefs (religion, free will, moral responsibility, etc.).

  6. grasshopper
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    “if you want to make the nut tighter, you ought to turn the wrench clockwise.”
    Or, as Tom Stoppard might have said in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead
    “It’s Toulouse, Lautrec”
    “Then make it Titus, Andronicus.”

  7. Vaal
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Jerry wrote:

    I’ve been accused, for instance, of being a compatibilist by using the word “ought”. But to me that the word is shorthand for the idea “if you want good consequence X, you should do action Y, and if you don’t, you can be called out.”

    But that will still only make sense insofar as you presume someone could “do otherwise.”

    If for instance I’m lying on the couch yet again and you tell me “you ought to go out for a walk (if you want to be more healthy)” this only makes sense as a reason for action IF I could take such an action. In other words, it must presume I could do otherwise than I am currently doing (laying on the couch).

    So either you are stuck making nonsensical statements that can’t act as coherent reasons for any action.

    Or you have to explain how I could do otherwise. That is, produce an explanation of why it can be true to say you could do otherwise that is compatible with determinism.

    And how do you do this without speaking the language of compatibilism?

    I see no sense of agency in using that word, or that it plays a role in any form of free will that’s meaningful.

    But we view each others as “Agents” because it is a successful theory for understanding human actions and predicting them.

    If I give you agential reasons, for instance, for why I choose not to eat meat – based on my desires and deliberations – that not only explains why I didn’t order meat at the restaurant tonight; it successfully predicts I won’t order meat the next times we dine out.

    And treating people as “agents” is useful for understanding and gaining predictive information as to how we should expect “Agents” to act vs non-agents. E.g, reprimanding a branch for falling on your car – treating it as an agent – isn’t going to yield any results. But treating a person who hits your car as an agent with beliefs, desires and reasons for actions WILL often enough yield different results.

    If someone is going to reject a theory that clearly is in wide use and so often successful, I think someone saying it’s wrong ought to account for it’s success and if we are to abandon a useful theory, let’s see how the replacement theory is more successful.

    • rom
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Possibly

      But if I were to say you ought get off the couch, I am signalling The benefits or consequences of getting off(or not) the couch. I think my signalling might have some effect on you.

      Alternatively I could use a stronger signal. A cattle prod perhaps. 😉

      • Vaal
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        rom,

        You’ve indicated the usual incompatibilist response: merely pointing out that a statement “could” influence someone’s behavior.

        But as I’ve been at pains to argue so many times, that misses the point. The question isn’t whether a statement “could” influence someone – all sorts of nonsensical statements and arguments influence people. The question is whether it SHOULD influence someone’s actions. That is: does it actually give a rational person a rational REASON for action?

        So if you come up to me while I’m on the sofa and say “You ought to go for a walk if you want to get more healthy” I’ll say “But I’m choosing to lay on this couch? Are you telling me I could do otherwise?”

        If you answer “No, you can’t do otherwise”

        I’ll point out “Uh…then who cares about what you just told me? If I can’t go for a walk, how can I have a reason to go for a walk? It’s like we both agree I can’t teleport to the moon, but then you say “If you want a great view of the earth, you’d get that by teleporting yourself to the moon.”

        Well, yeah, that could be, but it can’t act as a REASON for me to choose to teleport to the moon, if I can’t in fact teleport to the moon.

        Any “ought” only makes sense if you could take the action in question, and this requires we could do otherwise.

        That’s true of our own deliberations between actions. We can’t even have our own coherent “reasons to do X instead of Y” without the assumption we could in fact do otherwise, that either option is available to us.

        (And compatibilism is an account for why it makes sense to say “we could do otherwise” even given determinism).

        • rom
          Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

          Do you believe in cause and effect Vaal.

          I believe with a different impetus you could do otherwise.

          Don’t you?

          • Vaal
            Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

            Yes.

            Can you explain the relevance of your question? From what I can see, you are agreeing with me (it makes sense to say “I could do otherwise”).

          • rom
            Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            I can envisage doing otherwise, I can envisage you doing otherwise.

            But in the moment can you do otherwise?
            I think not.

            • Vaal
              Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

              Ok, then back to square one.

              If you don’t think I can take an alternative action., you can not give me a coherent reason to do anything other than what I’m doing.

              Doesn’t that seem like a problem to you?

              (And that being the case, if alternatives are impossible, all the reasoning you have used to reach your conclusion which entails contemplating possible alternatives is false. Hence, it’s self-defeating).

              • rom
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                What I think is if I don’t provide alternative instructions/signals to a machine, the machine will carry on doing whatever it does.

                Providing a different signal to that machine might change the machine’s behaviour. Does that make me think the machine can do otherwise. Perhaps. But it does not make me think that particular being able to do otherwise gives the machine free will.

                How is a machine different from a human being, other than more complex and less predictable?

              • darrelle
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:59 am | Permalink

                That doesn’t seem to follow at all. An input that you experience a moment before affects what you do in a particular, later now. In any now you can’t do other than what you do, but what you do in any now is a result of what you have experienced right up until that moment.

                If that is the premise, which it seems to me that it is, then your argument just doesn’t hold. Of course it is rational to tell someone they should, could, ought, ought not to do something other than what they have. No, it won’t change the past, but then even if magic free will were the case it wouldn’t change the past. You’d need a time machine for that. But it may change the person’s actions in similar circumstances in the future, whether 1/2 second in the future or 20 years, which is exactly how statements like those are intended.

                Getting someone to do other than what they are doing does not seem to be an issue at all to me. You give them new information, new input, and it is perfectly in line with the premise in paragraph 1 that the new input may result in new output, the person changing what they are doing.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      The answer should be fairly predictable. Telling you to get off the couch and get some exercise becomes part of the circumstances that you are now in. Being told to do something results in an involuntary consideration to do it.
      You will have no choice but to think about it, at least.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        Mark,

        (I’ll keep trying to hammer this one home for the moment).

        But wouldn’t your recommendation only make sense given it is POSSIBLE for me to get off the couch and go for a walk?

        Is this not obviously true?

        What if I were paralyzed from the neck down?

        Would it in that case make SENSE for you to say “you should get off the sofa and go for a walk?”

        Of course not. Because you are recommending something that is impossible for me to do.
        That’s irrational. You can tell a paralyzed person that “going for a walk would make you more fit, if you want to be more fit.” But how can that act as a REASON for a paralyzed person to take such an action, if it’s impossible for them to take the action?

        For your recommendation to make coherent sense, and for me to have a coherent reason to go for a walk instead of lie on the couch, “possibility” makes all the difference. It must be possible that I COULD go for a walk as a precondition for me to have a rational reason to “choose to go for a walk.”

        But if the incompatibilist has spent time telling me “you can’t do otherwise” but then tells me “you should go for a walk instead of lying on the sofa…” then this is a basic contradiction. It doesn’t make sense.
        The incompatibilist is telling me to do something impossible – to do otherwise.

        And the incompatibilist converting this “ought” into something like “my saying this could influence your action” or “doing X would get a Y result that you would like” still doesn’t make sense of recommending an impossible action.

        So long as the incompatibilist refuses to incorporate some true assumption of “could do otherwise” this contradiction will remain.

        (A contradiction compatibilism doesn’t face since compatibilism affirms it is coherent to say we “could do otherwise” given determinism).

        • darrelle
          Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          “But if the incompatibilist has spent time telling me “you can’t do otherwise” but then tells me “you should go for a walk instead of lying on the sofa…” then this is a basic contradiction.”

          But it isn’t. No, you can’t change the past but you can provide new input that results in the person getting off the couch. Or maybe, like my daughter, your attempt backfires and she stays there all day rather than the typical 1/2 day.

          You seem to believe that people just aren’t getting your point. I think most are. I think I understand it. But given your argument I’m not sure if you understand that the idea of “not able to do otherwise” is an instantaneous condition, that inputs never stop occurring and that the mind never stops processing and generating outputs.

          Now, not for a second do I think we know near enough about human cognition and relevant related fields to feel confident in any account of it. But I’ve yet to understand how your conception of determinism gets around “could not have done otherwise.” Or do you not agree that determinism is the case? I’d always thought that Compatibilists had no argument with determinism since the label means “Free Will is Compatible with determinism.” But recently I’ve been told that Compatibilits don’t necessary agree that determinism is the case, only that their conception of Free Will is compatible with it.

          • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

            So is this the idea: when you tell Vaal he should get off the couch, you imply that getting off the couch in the near future is the one and only thing he can do at that time (given that determinism is true)? So, it is a precondition of the advice being rationally persuasive that, after hearing the advice, he will actually follow it?

            That sounds weird, but it would at least make sense of why you think the future/present action distinction is so important here.

            • darrelle
              Posted May 1, 2018 at 7:40 am | Permalink

              No paultorek, that really isn’t it at all. Frankly that’s ridiculous and if I were the kind of person that took offense easily I’d probably be offended that you would attribute that to me. I don’t think this is very difficult to understand. Apparently Vaal does understand it.

              • Posted May 1, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                Look, there are several possible interpretations of your reply to Vaal, and each has its own problems. Let’s take a different one: maybe you deny Vaal’s ought-implies-can principle. You don’t know whether Vaal’s getting off the couch in the near future is possible or not (given determinism), but you think your ought statement could be true *regardless*. Thus, you think he really *ought* to get off the couch, even if it turns out he can’t.

                Well that’s less weird, although it’s still a little weird to deny ought-implies-can. The reason I didn’t select this interpretation is that if that’s what you meant, I’d expect you to say “Vaal, I deny your ought-implies-can principle”.

                Or, maybe you think that Vaal *can* get off the couch in the next minute, even if both: determinism is true, and it later turns out that he doesn’t. (That’s what I think.) But in that case, you’re a compatibilist.

                So I guess I’m not as smart as Vaal. That wouldn’t be surprising. How about you just tell me what you meant.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      I’ll deal with only one comment: your saying that using the word “ought” presumes that people could do otherwise. No it doesn’t–it presumes that people can be INFLUENCED BY THE ENVIRONMENT so that their behavior would be different if that influence hadn’t occurred.

      If the human brain can comprehend and adapt to new information in a way that acts adaptively, that isn’t free will. I’m surprised you make this elementary mistake. You’re conflating “you could have done otherwise in a single situation with every molecule and circumstance the same” with “you could do otherwise if you received an environmental stimulus that would modify what you would have done in the absence of that stimulus.” And you’re further suggesting that the human brain isn’t susceptible to “reasons”, which are simply inputs that might make the brain produce an adaptive decision, which is what it’s evolved to do.

      All of this is compatible with determinism.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Jerry,

        Please take a look at my response to rom, as you are making essentially the same point he was.

        We all know that we can be influenced by the environment and other people. And that human brains can take in information and adapt responses, etc. That’s a given, so it’s not a response to the problem I raised.

        All that is compatible with arguing for a flat earth. And people have been influenced to believe in a flat earth. But do they have GOOD REASONS to believe?

        The problem isn’t whether you can influence someone; The problem is whether you can MAKE SENSE when influencing someone. That is actually give someone rational reasons to behave in one way or another.

        And you will run right into this problem when you actually try to engage in making a recommendation.

        I’m on the couch, you say “You ought to go for a walk if you want to be more healthy” and I respond “So you mean I COULD go for a walk instead of lay on a sofa? I can DO OTHERWISE than I’m doing now?”

        And you would respond…??

        To respond that your suggestion could influence me is not a response. I’m asking if your statement is making sense, not if it’s possible it could influence anyone.

        If your “ought” does not imply I could do other than I’m doing – go for a walk instead of laying on the sofa – how could you have just given me a reason to do go for a walk?

        I’m at a loss at how I can’t get incompatibilists like yourself to recognize this obvious contradiction.

        • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, but there is no contradiction, and pease stop implying that I’m too thick to understand what you’re saying and take your obviously correct side of the argument. The fact is that people can take in reasons and change their behavior. Those reasons are processed by a brain evolved to act adaptively.

          Your cooked up example of the guy on the couch is, in my view, bogus. Saying “you could do otherwise than what you’re doing now” is the same as saying “you could process my statement and behave according to what how your brain reacts to that new information.” It is not at all convincing that free will (whatever you mean by it) is compatible with determinism.

          I could respond that I am at a loss to get compatibilists like yourself to recognize that you’re engaged in a semantic argument, redefining pure determinism as a species of free will.

          I’ve had my say, we disagree, and at least I don’t imply, as you do for me that you’re to thick not to agree with me.

          • Vaal
            Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

            Jerry, I apologize for my display of exasperation and didn’t mean to imply any insult. (And I won’t take your calling my example “bogus” as an insult either :-))

            The fact is that people can take in reasons and change their behavior. Those reasons are processed by a brain evolved to act adaptively. “

            Again…that’s all a given. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether any particular argument is coherent.

            Saying “you could do otherwise than what you’re doing now” is the same as saying “you could process my statement and behave according to what how your brain reacts to that new information.”

            Which still doesn’t answer the objection.

            A Christian can say to me “You ought to do whatever God commands!”

            I say: Why should I do whatever God commands?

            Christian: Because whatever God commands is what you should do.

            Well, the Christian’s reasoning contains an obvious fallacy: begging the question. So it can’t count as a reason for a rational person to accept this reasoning.

            The Christian can respond with exactly what you just told me:

            “you could process my statement and behave according to what how your brain reacts to that new information.”

            But how does THAT address the fallacy contained in his original statements?

            Obviously it doesn’t.

            We know we can take in ideas from other people and be influenced. But the point is the *particular reasoning* being presented by the Christian contains a fallacy, so it should be rejected.

            So if I point out to you that you’ve argued I can’t do otherwise (general principle) but have just recommended I do otherwise, then I’ve pointed to a contradiction in your claims. Responding that your claims could influence me is no more relevant to resolving this internal contradiction than it would be in the case of the Christian begging the question.

            If your “ought” doesn’t imply a “can” you aren’t going to be giving me an actual reason to do the ought.

            After all: how can it make sense to recommend an action that can not be taken????

            How can I have a reason to do what is impossible for me to do?

            If your “ought” amounts to “you may process this statement in a way that might influence you” with no acknowledgment we could do otherwise, then it still doesn’t make sense of the contradictions being pointed out.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted April 29, 2018 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

              ‘I’ve been accused, for instance, of being a compatibilist by using the word “ought”. But to me that the word is shorthand for the idea “if you want good consequence X, you should do action Y, and if you don’t, you can be called out.’

              What is the difference between ‘ought to’ and ‘should’ in this context?

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:39 am | Permalink

                Not much; both are shorthand. But so what/ Neither show that what most people think of as free will is compatible with determinism. Truly, I don’t understand what point people are making here. If they have a concept of free will that’s compatible with determinism, they should state it explicitly, which for some reason they seem loath to do, rather than hammer my use of language.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:24 am | Permalink

                Then why suggest, as, forgive me, you did, that there is a difference?

          • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:14 am | Permalink

            Hi Jerry,

            I am at a loss to get compatibilists like yourself to recognize that you’re engaged in a semantic argument, redefining pure determinism as a species of free will.

            This is something the compatibilists here have accepted multiple times. It is indeed just semantics.

            The compatibilists are not disagreeing with you over how the world works, they’re disagreeing with you over how to think about certain concepts.

            For example, to you, “moral” responsibility requires dualistic, contra-causal free will.

            To compatibilists it doesn’t. All it requires is that social interactions can affect how people act (and on that you agree with us).

            • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:41 am | Permalink

              To most people is does require contracausal free will (look at the Sarkeesian et al. study). I am concerned to dispel common ideas about free will rather than argue with philosophers whose motivation is that unless we accept some kind of free will, society will fall apart. That’s the same reason Dawkins argues with the average person’s conception of “God” rather than the conceptions of “Sophisticated theologians.”

              Besides, some compatibilists don’t think compatibilism gives us “moral responsibility”. You (and everyone) speak of compatibilists as if they’re a homogeneous whole espousing a coherent definition of free will Surely you know that that isn’t true.

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                “To most people is does require contracausal free will …”

                Agreed. Most people, when asked in a philosophical context, say that free-will is dualistic contra-causal free will (though when they use the term in everyday life it’s much more ambiguous).

                “… rather than argue with philosophers whose motivation is that unless we accept some kind of free will, society will fall apart.”

                I would disagree with Dennett on that, I think that society is totally robust against these sorts of arguments (which are about commentary and interpretation).

      • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        I also think the use of “ought” refers to more than the environment’s influence on behavior. You are suggesting that someone make a decision a certain way. If they have no power to make the decision, there’s no point in saying it. Am I missing something here?

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Agreed.

      Compatibilism is simply the recognition that branches and conscious agents behave differently.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:43 am | Permalink

        That’s your definition of compatibilism not that of Dennett or many other compatibilists. What gives you the right to say that that is THE definition of compatibilism?

        The failure of all the critics here to

        a. recognize that compatibilists find different ways to harmonize free will and determinism and

        b. the fact that critics here fail to define the notion of “free will” they are talking about (I have done that).

        means that these arguments will not be resolved. Frankly, I don’t really care so long as people accept behavioral determinism.

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          I don’t think that compatibilists all have different versions, they just explain things differently.

          As for the compatibilist definition of “free will”, it’s about the freedom to act on one’s will, not the ability to will what one wills. (A definition that goes back to the Schopenhauer quote and before.)

          One’s will is the deterministic product of the past. But can you then act on your will? That’s important to people.

          Someone not going to a party because they don’t feel like it is staying at home of their own free will.

          Someone not going to a party because they are in jail is not.

          And yes, this is a totally mundane and prosaic meaning of “free will”, and is very different from the metaphysical dualistic account.

          It’s also the meaning that matters for social interactions — and that’s what such concepts are about in everyday life (“did you sign the contract of your own free will or with a gun to your head?”).

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          I agree with Coel that we (compatibilists) don’t all have our own idiosyncratic definition of free will (I agree with Coel’s definition just above), but we do talk about it in different terms and analogies.

          For instance, Coel’s person in prison is the equivalent of the branch that Vaal and I mentioned.

    • Wayne Y Hoskisson
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      “But that will still only make sense insofar as you presume someone could “do otherwise.””

      This does not make sense to me. All the atoms in the universe shift continuously and do so following the laws of physics. Our explanations of behavior are post hoc explanations. People do develop hypotheses about agency. In fact by the age of three this is normal and showing no signs of developing a sence of agency in others is a sign of a developmental disability. By the age of three you will have 47,304,000 seconds of experience (assuming you slept 50 percent of the time). A lot of experiences get packed into a second. By one year you will have surpressed the Babinski reflex enough to be able to stand flat on your feet even though you may need help. This required no volition. Fortunately you will not have suppressed the reflex sufficiently that it cannot be used in diagnosing neurological diseases later in life.

      The question remains how does free will get inserted into the universe? How does it move atoms about to make decisions, to choose to do other than the flow of physical laws?

      At three years of age and with the right toys you you know that the square peg does not go in a round hole. You might even know which way to turn a plastic bolt to screw it into a matching hole. Does knowledge and skill grow increasingly complex as you grow older? Of course, but we do not need figments causation to explain them. What we cannot explain today we may some day.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

        Wayne Y Hoskisson

        I don’t see how what you wrote addresses my quote.

        I’m saying it doesn’t make sense to recommend an action that you believe to be impossible.
        It’s incoherent. That’s why we would all recognize impossible recommendation as nonsense.

        If your child was suffering an anaphylactic reaction I could sensibly say “you ought to inject the epinephrine pen if you want to alleviate the reaction.”

        This makes sense insofar as you have an epipen and are capable of injecting it into your child, right?

        But if I told you: “you ought to cure all cases of cancer right now by waving your hand three times” would that be a sensible recommendation given we both agree this is recommending something it is not possible for you to do?

        Of course not, right?

        That’s the point of the quote you responded to. It doesn’t make sense to recommend someone do something you think to be impossible. That’s irrational.

        Do you really disagree? If so, please make sense of recommending impossible actions.

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:47 am | Permalink

          Clearly your recommendation can cause an action to take place that wouldn’t have without those words. So what? That doesn’t argue for compatibilism or any meaningful concept of “free will” (which you haven’t defined yet). The first sentence is all that’s needed to refute your argument.

          That’s enough now of saying the same thing over and over again. It is not convincing to me, and doesn’t make me a compatibilist.

          Do you fail to see that an action that was “impossible” in the absence of a stimulus can become possible with one? That is all this boils down to. You’ve said that over and over again, and it’s enough. Those who are convinced by your claim will be convnced; the rest of us reject it as a non-argument.

          • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:44 am | Permalink

            “Do you fail to see that an action that was “impossible” in the absence of a stimulus can become possible with one?”

            That’s Vaal’s point. That there are a range of “possible” outcomes depending on what the local circumstances/stimuli are.

            • darrelle
              Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

              “I’m saying it doesn’t make sense to recommend an action that you believe to be impossible.
              It’s incoherent. That’s why we would all recognize impossible recommendation as nonsense.”

              I think this is Vaal’s point. He is claiming that because an Incompatibilist like Jerry says “couldn’t have done otherwise” that this entails that Jerry also must believe that it is impossible to influence someone else’s future actions by making a recommendation to them. This is completely wrong as Jerry and many others have tried to explain. Whenever people try to explain Vaal says they did not address his argument at all.

              I don’t think it can get any clearer than this. When Vaal says, “I’m saying it doesn’t make sense to recommend an action that you believe to be impossible,” he is just plain wrong about what the Incompatibilist believes about what is possible and, apparently, also plain wrong about the ramifications of the concept of “not able to have done otherwise” in the context of determinism and Free Will as understood by many Incompatibilists and Compatibilists. Including Dan Dennett.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

                Hi darrelle,

                I’ve been advised that I’ve become tiresome on the point I’ve been trying to make in this thread, which is why I’m resisting another detailed, boring reply.

                But given I still see people arguing about what I’m saying, I’ll just point out that your characterization of my argument is incorrect.

                Of course I know that Jerry believes he can influence other people with argument. Nothing about determinism implies we can not influence each other via our recommendations. We all believe that. That fact is accepted and presumed in the critique I’ve been making. The question is what assumptions make sense when we are deliberating between “options” and how can we make recommendations – “ought” “should” – that are coherent within the context of determinism? It seems to me we have to retain some notion of “could do otherwise” to make sense of recommending anyone do otherwise. And that this conception of “could do otherwise” must be compatible with determinism. And I don’t see how this can be done without ending up with compatibilist concepts.

                And, yes, I do understand compatibilism, and Dennett 🙂

                That’s my last reply on this subject at least on this thread. Over ‘n out.

              • darrelle
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

                🙂

  8. rom
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    All we can do is ensure equal opportunity. But that in itself is a huge social task, and it must begin at birth.

    I personally would aim at some sort of “each according to their needs”

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      And prior to birth, too- the social system preexisting the child joining us must be done right too.

  9. Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been accused, for instance, of being a compatibilist by using the word “ought”. But to me that the word is shorthand for the idea “if you want good consequence X, you should do action Y, and if you don’t, you can be called out.”

    That is indeed compatibilism. To adopt compatibilism fully, all one need add to that is equally prosaic accounts of the concepts “moral” and “free will”. For example:

    … you can be responsible in a way that leads to useful societal approbation or disapprobation, but not morally responsible, which to me means that when you do a bad act, you could have done the good alternative.

    The compatibilist then discards the idea that the possibility of contra-causal free-will choice is necessary for “moral” responsibility, and declares that “moral” responsibility is merely “leads to useful societal approbation or disapprobation” responsibility.

    Afterall, if we reject the former notion we still need the latter notion, and we still need a term for it.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      That’s YOUR definition of compatibilism, not mine. And it involves a stretching of the definition of free will beyond what most people are willing to do.

      Why, pray tell, should I accept your claim of what compatibilism is rather than somebody else’s, when there are so many forms, many of which conflict? Sorry, but I totally reject your claim that I’m a compatibilist, and that saying that “doing X produces desirable societal consequences Y” makes me a compatibilist.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:12 am | Permalink

        I don’t think you’re a ccompatibilist since you clearly adopt incompatibilist accounts of the terms “moral” and “free will”.

        But you, de facto, do adopt compatibilist accounts of “ought” and “choice”. Thus my comment was explaining what compatibilism is, saying that if you dropped the requirement that “moral” responsibility requires contra-causal choice then you’d be pretty much a compatibilist.

        The difference really is about how we define terms, not about the facts of how the world works.

        I also don’t agree that there are lots of different compatibilist definitions (though it may be stated differently). I pretty much agree with the other compatibilists here and elsewhere, such as Vaal.

  10. Posted April 29, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed the podcast. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. It mostly reinforced my own opinions but it was still an excellent discussion and worthwhile listening.

    I thought Beebee’s job interview example was a good one. In her explanation of determinism vs fatalism, she said, “If you’re determined to get the job, you still have to get out of bed and show up at the interview.” To my ear, this says there is still a decision to be made and that it matters how one makes it even if one believes in determinism.

    I guess I am a compatibilist because I agree with Beebee’s statement at the very end that one can look at a human being as a machine or as the locus of moral responsibility and see no conflict between the two views. As to the term “free will”, I would reserve that for conversations of the latter kind. If we view humans as machines (or the whole universe), then free will shouldn’t enter the conversation, just as the space between atoms in a chair doesn’t apply when one is arranging the furniture.

    The question of holding someone with a tumor responsible for their bad behavior is an interesting one. I think it comes down to their ability to make a free decision. If they are impaired by the tumor to a high degree, they don’t control their behavior sufficiently. Similar arguments apply to children who commit crimes. The level of control people have over their behavior is a continuum. Society has a difficult decision to make as to where on the continuum to split “responsible” from “not responsible”.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      “The level of control people have over their behavior is a continuum.”

      That’s the basic mistake that so many compatibilists are subject to; to assume that there is something like “degrees of freedom”. There is none. Determinism means that it does not matter if someone has committed a crime as a psychotic, as a minor, as a drunk, as a human with a brain tumor, as a drug addict, or as a legally responsible person: for there is no possibility for anyone to do otherwise.
      Whether or not medicine, or neurology, has already developed a specific diagnosis for the variables involved in each individual case, does not matter.
      We know that no one can or could escape the laws of physics and therefore there are no “degrees of freedom”.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Oh I understand about determinism, believe me. You obviously have not been reading what I’ve been saying here.

        My argument is that even if determinism is true (or not), it operates at a level to which we have no access. Therefore, we have no real choice but to live our lives independently of the answer to the determinism question.

        Saying this another way, the making of choices that most call “free will” can continue even if one believes that the universe is determined. The universe will play out as it does and our choices are just part of that process. We really have no choice but to play along as we have no access to the information that is determined. No matter what choice we make, someone can tell us “that choice was determined”. Our answer should be “So what?” and we should carry on.

  11. AC Harper
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    We should fight, strenuously, to make society less sexist and racist. But the result won’t be a world in which accidents of birth matter less; it will be a less sexist and racist society, in which accidents of birth still account for everything.

    If the alleged outcome of sexual equality in Sweden is anything to go by, a world of less sexist and racist societies will find that other factors, such as accidents of birth, will have a greater effect.

  12. David Evans
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I was impressed by Sean Carroll’s argument in The Big Picture, but I’m not sure it does all the work he wants it to.
    Suppose that we had nonphysical souls, and that they influenced our brains by exploiting quantum indeterminacy. Would anyone using the tools of physics have determined that fact? Is anyone conducting sufficiently detailed quantum-level observations inside living brains?

    • rom
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      What was Sean’s position?

      I was not impressed by it. I can’t remember it other than it was a compatibilist one.

      • Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        Carroll is I think a compatibilist and defends a ‘useful way of speaking’ defence of the language of choice, and hence moral responsibility, which I broadly agree with. For example, he says “…it is artificial and counterproductive to deny ourselves the vocabulary of choice when we talk about human beings…”

        Jerry discussed it here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/sean-carroll-on-free-will-3/

        Sometimes this debate just seems to boil down to the terms we choose to define our settled positions.

      • Liz
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        “A poetic naturalist says that we can have two very different-sounding ways of describing the world, a physics-level story and a human level story, which invoke separate sets of concepts and yet end up being compatible in their predictions concerning what happens in the world.” – p. 381, The Big Picture – All I have in the margin is “not compatible.” I love Sean Carroll and have learned so much from him, mostly how little I know about physics, but on this I disagree. They aren’t compatible.

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:14 am | Permalink

          Where is the incompatibility?

          • Liz
            Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:07 am | Permalink

            The “separate sets of concepts.” It’s all a physics-level story. We don’t have free will just because we are humans that use a different language and just because it feels like we have free will. I don’t think it’s “useful” vocabulary to say that we have free will when we do not. This only makes it more confusing for people to understand that we don’t have free will.

            • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:42 am | Permalink

              “We don’t have free will just because we are humans that use a different language …”

              We do not have dualistic contra-causal free will, agreed.

              But we do have social interactions, and language that reflects those social interactions, and Sean is correct that *that* account is indeed compatible with the one in terms of physics.

    • rom
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Just to add … this is becoming Chopraesque in context. This is reminiscent of some people who believe our brains pick up (analogous to a radio) a “consciousness” that is floating about. Having said that, that is completely dependent on the structure of our brain receivers.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      David Evans

      …Suppose that we had nonphysical souls, and that they influenced our brains by exploiting quantum indeterminacy. Would anyone using the tools of physics have determined that fact? Is anyone conducting sufficiently detailed quantum-level observations inside living brains?

      You need to define some stuff David for your question to make sense! For a start – quantum theory & quantum events are physical. They are physics. They involve fields, forces, energies, particles]

      In your thought experiment:

      Are you claiming my non-physical soul has a mind & my physical brain has another mind, or only my soul has a mind & the physical brain is just the ‘wiring’ to operate my eyes, arms, legs etc?

      If my mind is non-physical why do I lose awareness when my physical parts are in sleep? Or to put it another way – when I’m under general anaesthetic why can’t I keep on thinking in my non-physical soul?

      Furthermore – how does a non-physical mind [no forces, no fields, no energy] interact at a quantum level [or at any level] with the sub-atomic particles of my brain?

  13. ladyatheist
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Privilege is the equivalent of having a thumb on the scale. Egalitarianism takes the thumb off the scale. I don’t have a problem with that.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      A thumb on a scale is theft. How is being lucky the same as theft? If I win the lottery, is that theft? If I am born a white male, is that theft?

  14. Vaal
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Can any incompatibilist here tell me:

    How does it make sense to recommend an action if the action is impossible?

    How can we have a reason to do something that we can not do?

    Thanks.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      I am not an incompatibilist, but I will try. The action is not physically impossible. But it is possible if you change the initial conditions. One “ought” to change the initial conditions so that the more desirable outcomes (in the eyes of the reformer) are more likely.

      • Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        Define “initial”. That’s (one of) the incompatibilst’s problem(s).

        • Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

          Pre-existing conditions then.

          • Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

            The point was that real initial conditions can’t be changed. Compatibilists are the ones who acknowledge that things can influence the flow as it’s…flowing. Incompatibilists are stuck saying only initial (big bang I guess) conditions matter.

            • Posted April 29, 2018 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

              Ever since Hume, compatibilist free will has been defined as the capacity of humans to contemplate the consequences of actions available to us and choose among them so as to satisfy our desires. What we do is fully deterministic.

              Suppose the present conditions in my brain determine that I take action X, but that the present conditions in your brain prefer that I take action Y. You would say that I “ought” to do Y. Following your desires you might take actions to persuade me to do Y, and you may or may not be successful at changing the conditions in my brain. None of this is inconsistent with determinism or with the compatibilist definition of free will.

            • darrelle
              Posted April 30, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

              I don’t think that’s the case. If you go up above and read some of Jerry’s responses, particularly to Vaal, you’ll see that even Jerry thinks “that things can influence the flow as it’s…flowing.”

              I certainly get confused myself in these discussions, particularly because self identified Compatibilists and Incompatibilists do not all agree conceptually with their respective group. But I can’t recall off hand any Incompatibilists that sounded as if they would disagree with your statement.

              I do think, though, that Incompatibilists that make claims such as “agency is an illusion” are rationalizing too far beyond what we know. That we are not aware of all the processes taking place in our brains does not mean “we” are not the authors. It just means that we don’t yet know what “we” are or how “we” works. But we are starting to figure it out.

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                I think that’s a mistake incompatibilists make. I know they frequently argue for the efficacy of influence, but for incompatibilists to be consistent they’d have to admit that influence is an illusion, just like choice.

                If they say that, while determinism holds at the lowest levels of reduction, we can still point to the real phenomena of influence and choice at higher, emergent levels of reduction, then they are actually espousing compatibilism.

              • darrelle
                Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                I don’t consider myself an incompatibilist, but that doesn’t seem to be accurate to me. Incompatibilism is simply the contention that magic Free Will is incompatible with determinism while Compatibilism is simply the contention that non-magic Free Will is compatible with determinism. I think in all these discussions that often gets lost. That the argument between the two groups all stems from the label “Free Will” and what phenomena (magic or non-magic) it is being used to label. Whatever individuals from each side may argue the formal positions agree completely on the phenomena involved. Compatibilists don’t believe in magic Free Will and incompatibilists accept the type of Free Will that compatibilists say is compatible with determinism.

                I don’t think an incompatibilist would argue that influence is an illusion in the sense it seems you may mean and it doesn’t follow for me why they would need to in order to be consistent. I get, I think, that your reasoning is that if they say choice is an illusion then influence must be an illusion also since it assumes choice. But I don’t think your using the applicable meaning of illusion.

                I think when incompatibilists argue that choice is an illusion they mean it in the sense that it (choosing, making a decision) isn’t what many people think it is. They aren’t claiming that there isn’t a phenomenon that occurs in things like brains and computers that generates outputs based on inputs, they are pointing out that given a certain specific array of inputs into a certain specific computing device or brain at a certain instant the output can be only one thing. In other words, people can’t make choices free of determinism. And that doesn’t sound like the concept of choice most people think of when they use or hear the word. It does seem like many people find that to be uncomfortable. Personally this is one area in which I agree completely with Dennett when he said something like, “If chocolate is the flavor of ice cream I’m craving why would I want to choose another flavor?”

              • Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I think you’ve nailed it. Framing the real argument as between “compatibilists” and “incompatibilists” seems wrong to me. The nest of issues here are way more subtle and more numerous than those labels would indicate. It also forces one into artificial arguments as to whether one is a “true compatibilist” or just one that has no problem saying “ought”.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        That just sounds like compatibilism, darwinwins.

        Though it’s still a bit opaque what you mean.

        Can you put it into practice? If we go back to the example I’ve been using up the thread:

        I’m lying on the couch and have been saying “I wish I were in better shape.” You want to recommend an action: that I go for a walk instead of stay on the couch watching TV.

        How do you voice this recommendation in a way that gives me a coherent reason to do it, and how does the possibility of changing initial conditions figure in to your recommendation?

        • Posted April 29, 2018 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

          I might change the information in your brain. If I were a loved one to you, I may inform you better about my preferences, and that would change your decision.

          • Vaal
            Posted April 29, 2018 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

            darwinwins,

            Looks like we are back to the same problem I’m having with the incompatibilists in this thread.

            The proposition that you might change the information in my brain doesn’t tell us whether you could give good reasons for an action.

            Arguments containing obvious fallacies and contradictions change the information in people’s brain all the time, and so do good arguments. So the question remains if you can give me good, coherent reasons to take an action, given the incompatibilist claim “you could not do otherwise.”

            So if you want to keep trying at this:

            Take the laying on the couch scenario again, give me an example of what you would actually say to me if you want to give me a reason to take another action (e.g. go walking).

            E.g., you might say to me:

            “If you want to get fit you ought to go for a walk instead of staying on that couch.”

            And then explain what that means.

            Because otherwise I will take it as entailing “you could do something other than what you are doing now” as a precondition for understanding your recommendation.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:01 am | Permalink

            Since any stimulus at all has an effect on the brain and changes ‘the information in the brain’, whether it is the stated preferences of a loved one, a rational argument (which one might agree with, disagree with for some, perhaps invalid, reason or other, violently reject having understood its import or violently accept without having understood it, or remain fairly indifferent to), a speech whose appeal is purely emotional by Donald Trump or by somebody worse, a shock of some kind (a friend’s death, experience in battle, an event like 9/11), the important question is surely about distinguishing between the reasons (not necessarily rational) why people act as they do. No doubt, from the point of view of physics, there is no difference between being whipped into a frenzy by some preacher of hatred so that one righteously joins in the ensuing massacre on the massacring side and reading ‘The Origin of Species’ and being persuaded by Darwin’s careful arguments and the evidence he adduces that evolution actually occurs, but from a human point of view there surely is. This is the point that seems to me to be consistently missed both by he-men incompatibilists and wet compatibilists.  

            • Tim Harris
              Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:46 am | Permalink

              That is to say, I think there is no such thing as free will, and the quarrel between ‘incompatibilists’ and ‘compatibilists’ does not seem to me to be fundamentally about whether there is or not ‘free will’, but about what counts as an adequate description or explanation of certain kinds of human behaviour. Being persuaded by Darwin’s arguments entails a number of things: being able to read, being sufficiently educated to understand and follow his arguments and judge his evidence,and being sufficiently undogmatic and respectful of rational argument to accept them, so that it is not that at the end of getting through the book there is some little magic person in the brain who proudly announces ‘I agree with that, even though I could have disagreed if I had wanted to’, just as cheering Trump on when he talks of building a wall or imprisoning ‘crooked Hillary’ doesn’t depend on some little person in the brain saying ‘I hate Mexicans and Hillary is a *****, even though I could have chosen to feel otherwise.’ (And in the latter case there seem to be a number of well-educated people who are happy to go along with Trumpian or Brexitian views about the general nastiness of immigrants and others, so such matters do not necessarily have to do with a lack of education but more perhaps to do with the type of person you are.) I think that Vaal, whom I have respect for, is somehow assuming that having a rational reason for doing something is somehow ultimately ‘freer’ than having a splendidly irrational reason or no reason at all apart from a general unpleasantness or pleasantness of character for doing something, whereas this does not seem to be the case. But having said that, we surely need to try to distinguish the reasons (of all kinds) why people act as they do in order to describe and explain human behaviour.

              I have listened to the BBC discussion of free will, which I thought excellent. I was struck by the reference towards the end to Peter Strawson’s paper on the deficiencies of free will, in which he nevertheless remarks on the undesirability of regarding human beings (other than oneself, of course)as things to be punished or rewarded or generally ‘managed’ by the enlightened.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      The simple answer to your question is the only thing that approximates to an axiom in moral philosophy–namely “ought implies can”.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      Your question is asked and answered. I recommend that you stop harping on it over and over again, as it’s getting tedious.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Ok Jerry, sorry if I’ve been stinkin’ up the place on this point.

        I’ll cease and desist.

        Thanks for the conversation!

  15. Posted April 29, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Re: the wrench

    You’re not instructing the wrench to do anything. The object of your admonition is the person weilding the wrench. The analogy isn’t apt.

  16. Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    What an interesting discussion. Strawson is certainly famous for espousing the whole “eventually you get to a state of affairs over which you have no control…therefore determinism” line of argument.
    This is techically known as a Sorites paradox (sometimes called the “paradox of the heap”) and I think it can be dealt with in the same way.
    The heap paradox goes like this…one grain of sand isn’t a heap…and adding one grain to another never turns a non heap into a heap…therefore…there are no heaps of sand.
    The solution to Sorites paradoxes is that the concept of a heap is not well-defined.
    They have penumbra. There are kinda heaps…sorta heaps…kind sorta heaps…and so on. Like there is green, there is red…but exactly where you draw the line on a spectrum is undefined.
    Philosophers love drawing lines–but evolutionists don’t. After all, the Sorites paradox is the religious confusion over natural kinds (“You are descended from a monkey, was it your mother or fathers side?”) and evolutionists have a ready answer to this (viz “your concept of natural kinds isn’t as well defined as you think it is”)
    I submit that the concept of moral responsbility isn’t as well defined as we might think. We have people who are sorta responsible (youngsters), kinda responsible (the tipsy), etc.
    Absolute and total responsbility is a myth–and always was. And–we could sure learn to be kinder and more compassionate by reflecting on moral luck and similar examples.
    But none of this warrants a removal of all concepts of moral responsbility, because we can meaningfully distinguish degrees of control. And–as long as we can do that we have as much compatibilism as we might ever want.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      ” because we can meaningfully distinguish degrees of control.”

      That a drunk person has less control over his behaviour then a sober person doesn’t mean that the sober person could have acted otherwise.
      And that means neither of them can be hold responsible for his actions due to there is no such thing as “degrees of freedom”.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:31 am | Permalink

        corr: neither of them can be hold *moral* responsible for his actions

      • Tim Harris
        Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        I do not think that HelenaHandbasketis suggesting what you think she (?) is suggesting.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        So are you arguing for not punishing the drunk driver because they have no ultimate control over anything? Surely not.

        • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

          If you don’t punish drunk drivers then more people will drive in a drunk state.
          You have got to punish in order to deterrence.

  17. Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Free will has little to do with success. As I see it there are three basic components: your innate abilities, your starting point in life (societal privilege), and cultural climate (being in the right place at the right time).

    • Tim Harris
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      Ah, true wisdom at last!

  18. Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    Once your frame of reference is inside this reality, then we can’t help but see agents who can be influenced. The intentional stance has its fingerprints all over our minds and language. Banning one concept does nothing to cure humans from the notion of intentionality.

    Once you step out of the reality frame and see it as a collection of stuff on rails, then NONE of the ordinary concepts we use make much sense, and it can even be disputed whether we can even conceive of that view at all coherently. We will always bring along the “human way” of perception and thinking.

    What Jerry, and everyone else (including me) is actually doing is creating a “blend” of inside perspective, and outside perspective, and import various entities into it. Jerry likes to keep the “on rails” part, but also “ought” and “want”, “wishing” and “deciding” and most of the other baggage from the intuitive “folk psychology” realm, yet wants to get rid of the free will notion.

    Compatibilists, like Dan Dennet and myself, want to keep free will too, because that’s how humans perceive things to work. To me this isn’t a problem, because it gels well with model dependent realism.

    I also agree that it’s worthwhile trying to understand how both things go together, determinism and free will. But the answer lies in cognition; how humans understand themselves and the world, and not in a “physicalist” attempt to bring both together by throwing out one or two offending concepts. “Free Will” is not gone from our mind by banning one idea or word, and Jerry himself demonstrates that in his writing.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Your approach, in dealing with the question of free will, is based on the assertion that there is a kind of anthropological constant in perception. “We always want to bring along the human way of perception and thinking.”
      Is this chiseled somewhere in stone?
      People have constantly changed their perceptions and thinking from the beginning due to new expierences and due to adapt to different situations.
      Something like “the human way of perception and thinking” does not exist.

      The claim that there is such a thing as a constant, anthropological constant serves nothing more than to create the fiction that one would be more or less in the same place in the discussion.

      ” What Jerry, and everyone else (including me) is actually doing is creating a “blend” of inside perspective, and outside perspective, and importing various entities into it. Jerry likes to keep the “on rails” part, but also “ought” and “want”, “wishing” and “deciding …”

      No it is not like that.
      You only fancy yourself if you think that you can decide the discussion in your favor by positioning the opposing positions as basically not far from your own.
       
      “Free Will is not gone from our mind by banning one idea or word, and Jerry himself demonstrates that in his writing.”

      Who wants to “ban” free will? To proclaim something like this is just ridiculous.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:33 am | Permalink

        Your approach, in dealing with the question of free will, is based on the assertion that there is a kind of anthropological constant in perception […] People have constantly changed their perceptions and thinking from the beginning due to new expierences and due to adapt to different situations. Something like “the human way of perception and thinking” does not exist.

        There are many ways to address that.

        This is a site with “evolution is true” in the headline. Jerry and I believe that evolution did not stop at the neck. Even ardent postmodernists (i.e. post-structuralists, cultural relativists) will grant a few “anthropological constant[s] in perception” as you call it. Since humans are an evolved species, there are of course things that are “constant” for all members of our species. Constant of course as in “similar between members of homo sapiens”, with the caveat that human perceptions and cognitive faculties also evolved.

        The kinds of things necessary for my assertion are indeed universals, even as particulars (see Donald E. Brown’s Human Universals).

        Further, everyone who comments here is probably not only a human, but also takes part in a discussion in English on a particular topic which is based on shared concepts. This is as “constant” as it gets, without that it has to be species-wide, in any language, or across all ages.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Yep.

  19. Dominic
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I now think it must be that any argument about free will has to be intimately linked with the concept of time. Does time exist? Smolin says yes, Rovelli says no…

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      I don’t agree that Rovelli says “no” to the existence of time. He says time is emergent rather than fundamental i.e. the universe obeys the laws of quantum mechanics & thermodynamics out of which time emerges.

      “Entropy growth orients time and permits the existence of traces of the past, and these permit the possibility of memories, which hold together our sense of identity. I suspect that what we call the “flowing” of time has to be understood by studying the structure of our brain rather than by studying physics: evolution has shaped our brain into a machine that feeds off memory in order to anticipate the future. This is what we are listening to when we listen to the passing of time. Understanding the “flowing” of time is therefore something that may pertain to neuroscience more than to fundamental physics. Searching for the explanation of the feeling of flow in physics might be a mistake”

      SOURCE

  20. Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    There are problems with determinism, quite a few, that are glossed over in these arguments. Science, for example, is not deterministic and we have accepted that we live in a nondeterministic universe. So, why make human behavior an exception?

    The main problem I see is that people use simplistic metaphors for determinism, like a pool table on which if all of the positions of the balls is known and velocities, etc. the future state of the table can be determined. But this is an illusion. We imagine a perfect table, perfectly level, with perfect felt, perfectly round, elastic balls, etc. But they are not. Everything is irregular, hugely irregular, which makes the computing power to make such a prediction so large as to be impossible.

    When sensory data comes into our brains, vast amounts of it are jettisoned because we lack the computing power and storage to deal with it. The mental subroutines that dump the data are hardwired in, but are susceptible to errors/flaws. We have myriad “optical illusions” to show us how poorly we manage sensory data.

    In other words, many steps of the process may be deterministic, but long chains of events rarely are. They are more likely to be random than many other things.

    So, when determinists think of “stimulus and response” they are thinking way too simplistically. Add in emergent mental properties such as imagination, consciousness, etc. we end up mentally farther away from stimuli than we think.

    I argue that any conclusion regarding free will is way too premature to even take a position. If one wants to hypothesize, well that is one thing, but to argue conclusively is just unwarranted.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Your view that mental processes are indeterministic seems based solely on your opinion rather than hard data. Where do you get the idea that “chains of events” are more likely to be random than many other things?” What do you mean by “random”? Affected by quantum-mechanical processes.

      In fact, virtually all philosophers, including compatibilists, are determinists with respect to human behavior, as there is no evidence to the contrary and, as Sean Carroll observes, the physics of everyday life is know pretty completely.

      Your pool-table argument shows that you are confusing determinism with “predictability”, which invalidates your argument.

  21. Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Let’s say the universe is deterministic, starting from the Big Bang. How the universe unfolds in every detail is set to infinity. Given that, what should we do with our lives? Surely any sane person would recommend we go on as usual, making decisions and, sometimes, telling others what they “ought” to do. Even if what each of us does is already determined, we have no access to that information at all. Information you can’t access is indistinguishable from information that doesn’t exist. If we define “free will” as the ability to make decisions freely (ie, you could have chosen otherwise) then we all have it.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      paultopping:

      If we define “free will” as the ability to make decisions freely (ie, you could have chosen otherwise) then we all have it.

      Surely you mean this:

      If we define “free will” as the ability to make decisions freely (ie, you think you could have chosen otherwise) then we all have it.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Ok. If determinism is true, then I only think I have a choice. I agree with that. I think you are missing my point here. There are many things in our everyday world that are, in fact, illusions if we want to include what we know about fundamental physics and how the universe operates. Certain events appear to be simultaneous but relativity says that depends on your frame of references. We think of the chair we sit in as solid but physics tells us that it is mostly vacuum and all the particles are in constant motion. Determinism is like these things. It may be true but it operates at a level we have no access to. As long as we define “free will” as operating at the level of human affairs (my preference) then we have it. If we want to think in terms of fundamental physics and “how things really are”, then we don’t.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        “i.e, you think you could have chosen otherwise”

        and “you think” means nothing else then that free will is an illusion

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          Of course that’s what I meant Sher

          • Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

            Of course I knew you meant that, I just wanted to paraphrase it in favor for those reaaders who still are confused about words and terms of this topic 🙂

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      Let’s say the universe is deterministic, starting from right now, and working both forward and backward from there. After all, given any of the most credible deterministic theories – Schrödinger equation with Everett interpretation, for example – the fundamental physics equations are time-symmetric in this sense. You can start at any time in any given reference frame, and derive conditions earlier and later than that time.

      So there’s no physical reason to consider the Big Bang special, somehow the “master” to every other time’s “slave”. Instead, there are only practical reasons to privilege a particular time (and place) – and those practical reasons point to here and now, as your starting point.

      • Posted May 1, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        Most physicists would say that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang so would disagree with you. According to Wikipedia:

        Stephen Hawking has said that “Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.”

        Not that this has much to do with what we’re talking about here anyway.

        • Posted May 1, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t say that there’s a time before the Big Bang, I said that the fundamental laws of physics are time-symmetric in an interesting sense. The latter fact – the one I was actually talking about – contradicts some common sense ideas about causality. And, I would argue (if I had the space), it’s those common sense ideas about causality that conflict with free will, and create the illusion of incompatibility.

          • Posted May 1, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

            I suspect that causality doesn’t have much meaning in fundamental physics. Perhaps we agree on this but, as you suggest it is not the place to get into it.

            Causality does have meaning in everyday life, though. If a car hit my cat, I can confidently say that the car caused the death of my cat. Of course, if we look at that closely, you can see gaps. Was it the car or the driver? Or perhaps the cat being in the street? One can get into the philosopher’s finer granularity of causes but I see those as equally problematic. However, if I am explaining to my wife what happened to the cat, it is pretty simple.

            • Posted May 2, 2018 at 5:09 am | Permalink

              Fair enough. You’ve taken the first step (on a road that leads to compatibilism, once you carefully work out what science actually says about causality).

  22. peepuk
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    In regard of some of the raised issues.

    Determinism tells us:

    Nothing is deserved, nothing is earned.

    Biology tells us:

    There are only quantitative differences between living organisms, no qualitative differences exist.

    Most people don’t like these rather obvious conclusions backed by well tested science. Science allows us to differentiate between reality and fiction.

    And, by coincidence, it answers questions about justified privileges: they do not exist; we deserve no more privileges than f.i. a cockroach.

    IQ-differences between humans is a nice example of a quantitative difference; most people mistakenly treat it as a qualitative difference. If we are honest and look at the evidence, this perceived qualitative difference is just some self enhancing fiction in our heads. A cockroach is as valuable as a human being.

    Compatibalism between “determinism” and “free will” makes scientifically no sense at all; what remains is just a piece of motivated reasoning, created to deny or obfuscate the fact that we humans are nothing more than some kind of biological robot.

  23. Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Luck doesn’t swallow everything.

    It’s true that if you keep tracing causes of causes of causes,

    it all comes back to factors over which you have no control.

    But this doesn’t show that you don’t control what you’re doing right now. Who says that to control a result, you have to control all the causal history of that result? It’s enough that you are an intelligent, approximately rational being with beliefs and desires about your actions and their results, which you weighed to select that action, thereby causing it. That’s what “control” means. What comes before that is irrelevant, as long as it’s consistent with those facts. There is no need for an infinite regress of control.

    The history of philosophy is littered with plausible sounding “requirements” like the above regress-of-control principle. There is also the infamous regress-of-knowledge principle, the idea that you first have to know that you have a reliable procedure, in order to know any particular fact. Each regress principle leads quickly to the conclusion that nothing can be [controlled / known]. But since there is no reason to accept either principle, we shouldn’t accept these conclusions.

  24. Tim Hanrahan
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    “That should make us think twice about what we’re really doing when we give praise or blame.” Of course whether or not we do think twice about this, we can neither be praised nor blamed for it.


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