If only I weren’t determined to fight about free will!

The Chronicle of Higher Education is holding an essay symposium on Free Will and I have so many problems with Jerry Coyne’s contribution: “You Don’t Have Free Will.”  To begin with, I have a general suspicion that the debate over free will is terrible at least in part because the definition of free will is incoherent.  (Yudkowsky has a good essay on recognizing and defusing definitional debates).

What we are fumbling after is the reason we are morally culpable for our own actions.  Why do we talk about having ownership of them and responsibility for them?  If both the normal function of the hand and Strangelove syndrome are both just the result of induced chemical reactions, why do we treat one as aberrant and in need of cure?

The definition of ‘Free Will’ that Coyne offers doesn’t solve this problem and isn’t worth attacking or defending:

I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

We’re not hoping simply to end up in equipoise, where our choices could go either way arbitrarily.  An identity that persists through time does limit how our choices come out.  That’s the point.

But the bit that most confused me came later in the essay.  Coyne wrote:

So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? Well, nihilism is not an option: We humans are so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that we can choose. What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.

Is the only reason nihilism is off the table because we’re not free to come to our senses?  (And, come to think of it, what’s the point of writing a persuasive essay against free will in the first place?  Coyne must be acting from necessity, not hoping we’ll choose to change our mind).

I don’t understand why, in Coyne’s framework, the false notion he’s trying to root out is that “people can choose to do wrong” when it already looks like ‘wrong’ has no place in his world.  Wrong compared to what?  Is there a difference between humans hurting other humans and a parasitic wasp laying eggs inside a still-living caterpillar?

I like you all too much to embed a picture of parasitic wasp larvae wriggling out of a caterpillar. This is a yawning baby hedgehog instead.

My half-fleshed out answer is that we’ve got access to something different in our environment than the wasps do.  As the animal that thinks, we have access to abstractions, specifically the Moral Law.  Knowledge of the moral law, even imperfect knowledge, is a new constraint on our thought and actions, and it’s one we should welcome.

Does this get me back into the morass of weird neo-Platonism that makes both sides angry at me? Well, yeah.  But I’d rather get caught in contradictions in my proposed solution than in my denial that something here needs explanation in the first place.  My position doesn’t let me brush off the problem, so there’s more pressure on me to fix my philosophy.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • leahlibresco

    This quote from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy didn’t really fit easily into the post, but is apropos, so I’m sticking it in the comments:

    If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

    • Kyle

      Nice quote. Chesterton is the master of absurd imagery to get a point across.

      Here is another quote from Orthodoxy that has to do with whether determinism leads to a more or less moral society. I was reminded of this quote when I watched part of the Sam Harris video that The Friendly Atheist posted.

      I may note that there is a queer fallacy to the
      effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way
      favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel
      punishments or punishments of any kind. This is
      startlingly the reverse of the truth. It is quite
      tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no
      difference at all; that it leaves the flogger
      flogging and the kind friend exhorting as before.
      But obviously if it stops either of them it stops
      the kind exhortation. That the sins are
      inevitable does not prevent punishment; if it
      prevents anything it prevents persuasion.
      Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty
      as it is certain to lead to cowardice.
      Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel
      treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps)
      inconsistent with is the generous treatment of
      criminals; with any appeal to their better
      feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle.
      The determinist does not believe in appealing to
      the will, but he does believe in changing the
      environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go
      and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help
      it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for
      boiling oil is an environment.

      • Ray

        Interesting quote. It clearly brings to the fore something I’ve never really quite understood about people who think morality needs some sort of supernatural basis. Are not the words one hears (e.g. “go and sin no more”) as much part of his environment as would be the hypothetical vat of boiling oil?

        • Kyle

          In some sense I suppose it could be construed that way, just like you could say that you are appealing to someone’s will by placing them in a vat of boiling oil.

          Chesterton is not saying that an appeal to the will needs to mutually exclusive from a change in environment (I think that in practice the two have to go together to some extent). He is saying that if you really think people have no free will to appeal to then it would be ridiculous to even try; the only viable option would be to change their environment.

          • Ray

            I guess what’s in dispute here is not so much the existence of the will, but whether it’s free. Surely you would not attempt persuasion by way of argument unless you thought the will was in some sense constrained by your argument. So then the question is, what constraints are so severe that they compromise the freedom of the will?

            Viewed in this way, I would say free will is not an all or nothing proposition, but a matter of degree. The man who is persuaded is more free than the man who is threatened by oil, because whether he is persuaded is meaningfully influenced by his character: a man of good character is amenable to persuasion while a man of poor character is not, but all men, or nearly all, fear the boiling oil.

            OTOH, when trying to claim incompatibility of freedom/moral responsibility with determinism, or more broadly materialism, you really do need some kind of all-or-nothing proposition to argue for it. At least that’s the way it seems to me.

          • Patrick

            I don’t think my cell phone has free will. But I still verbally input data so that said data can be processed, and so that the phone’s behavior will be altered. Even in situations most favorable to Chesterton’s argument, his argument fails.

            Chesterton is so far off the reservation that its hard to believe he’s even trying. He’s confused free will with the ability to process information. All he had to do was talk to just one person who doesn’t believe in free will, and he could have had that misapprehension corrected. But no.

          • Kyle

            @Patrick

            I don’t think your cell phone has free will (or any will for that matter) either :)

          • Kyle

            @Ray

            “Surely you would not attempt persuasion by way of argument unless you thought the will was in some sense constrained by your argument.”

            That’s a very interesting way of putting it. By making an argument you are trying to give someone information that, if they deem it to be true, they can not ignore and thus it will influence their will.

            I am not sure what you mean by saying that free will is not an all or nothing proposition. It seems to me that either it must be free at *some* level or it is not free at all. Certainly I am not free to will to transform into a tiger (and have it actually happen), but I am free to choose what to have for breakfast.

            A man acting out of fear of boiling oil is less free and also less culpable for his actions. For example, a man who kills his wife when threatened that if he doesn’t they both will die is less culpable of murder than the man who kills his wife when not being coerced.

            I agree with your last paragraph, either freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism or they are not. I think most people would say that they are not compatible.

          • Ray

            While most folk are incompatibilists (probably. If I recall, it depends how you ask the question.) most philosophers are compatibilists on determinism and free will. So who do you believe?

            I’m not sure what you mean by “free on some level” though. Free of what? coercion? is being born with a certain personality coercion? The usual compatibilist definition of free will parses “I could have acted differently” as “I would have acted differently if I had a different personality.” Is that free on some level?

            What I mean by not all or nothing: even picking the breakfast cereal has a pattern to it. I am less likely to pick a cereal I don’t like, and less likely still to pick one I am allergic to. Am I free to pick a cereal that makes me sick? What if, as a matter of fact, I never do? What does it mean to say I could have picked the cereal, but I never would have?

            Then there’s edge cases like addiction and insanity and so forth. Some dispositions, like addiction, are considered abnormal, therefore less than fully human, therefore outside the self. This seems pretty clearly a matter of convention, though, and so we have arguments whether gambling addiction and sex addiction are diseases or merely character flaws. Not that there’s anything wrong with convention: In some sense, everything we say using words is determined by convention, since all words are defined by convention — unless you want to believe this bastardized mixture of German, French, and Latin we call modern English was gifted us by God. This is of course not to say language is arbitrary — some conventions are more useful than others to typical humans living in the physical environment in which we find ourselves — but it is irreducibly fuzzy around the edges. Even mathematics is not impossible to misinterpret, it is merely designed so that a typical human will not misinterpret it.

          • Ray

            erk. I fear I may have rat-holed myself with that offhanded comment about math. What I mean to say is that the terminology is chosen by convention and there are undecidable propositions which can only be rendered unambiguously true or false by way of an additional convention. (Oh. And I do not believe I have committed myself to incompatibilism when I speak of “choosing” conventions. Indeed the way of convention choice in the incompatibilist sense leads to madness, or at least postmodernism.)

          • Kyle

            By free on *some* level I mean that no matter what happens, you can never be absolutely completely coerced into doing something. There is always a choice. Your choices are always limited by something, but no one can take away every single other option.

          • deiseach

            Patrick – your mobile phone has behaviour? Wow, when they called ‘em smartphones, they really meant it!

          • Patrick

            deiseach- Is my point actually opaque to you, or are you just being flippant. I don’t want to elaborate if there’s no point.

          • deiseach

            Patrick, if you are going to say that a device exhibits behaviour in the same fashion that a human being does, then who is the one being flippant here?

            If your phone starts pressing your buttons and entering data to alter your behaviour, then we can make such comparisons. If you are saying in all seriousness that the environmental stimuli act upon you in the same manner as you input text into your phone’s system, so that both it and you merely react in an uncomprehending, mechanical fashion, then for the love of Faraday, why are we even pretending to be conscious?

          • Patrick

            I’m not saying that a phone is the same as a person.

            I’m saying that Chesterton’s argument, that if free will doesn’t exist it would be impossible to change someone’s behavior by talking to them, is monumentally bad even when applied to an object both I and Chesterton would agree is deterministic and lacking in free will, eg, a cell phone.

            I’m not making a point about the nature of the mind. I’m making a point about the nature of Chesterton’s argument, to wit, that its stupid, intellectually careless, and suggests that he’s either never listened to the opposing viewpoint even long enough to understand it at its most basic and shallow level, or else he’s just mendacious.

        • deiseach

          Kyle got to the quote before I could put it up, but I agree; if Professor Coyne’s point is that the criminal could do no other than he did, given his genetics and his environment, therefore he should not be blamed for his crimes, but he should still be punished (as punishment works as social conditioning to deter future crime), then the exhortation can do no good.

          There is no point in appealing to a better nature, because the nature our criminal has is the one provided by his genetics, which predisposes him to commit crime. And since there is no free will and no choice in any sense of the word that is meaningful, then our criminal cannot choose not to commit crime. Put him in a bank or a liquor store and he will commit armed robbery – it is inevitable, even if you exhort, plead with or educate him. It’s not his fault but he is doomed to act out the same deeds over and over again.

          However, we can condition him to restrain his impulses by either the carrot or the stick – and, given how society works, the stick seems the likelier choice (pumping money into positive re-inforcement and enabling improvement to the criminal’s circumstances by education, help with employment and social services is so expensive, not to mention that our criminal either through being too hardened by age and experience or lack of ability may not be able to obtain anything other than low-status, low-wage jobs that are the most likely to be shed, leaving him in temptation of falling back on crime as easy money.)

          If we make his fear of prison great enough to over-ride his desire to steal money or deal drugs or pimp out women as prostitutes, then we will protect society. And the way to increase fear of bad consequences is to make prison even more intolerable, to treat inmates more cruelly. Yes, even to bringing back judicial torture – that is an enviromental variable we can measure and control and apply ‘scientifically’ for quantifiable results.

          I think this is an insult to even the most vicious and degraded criminal; treating a human as a piece of clockwork mechanism that can only run in the ruts of behaviour like a train on its tracks, but then again, I’m one of those irrational faith-heads.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      I’m not clear why those are one’s only two options. Offhand I can think of at least two good (that is, non-creepy non-animal-abuse-y) reasons for being pleased about skinning a cat. The only time you’d be limited to those two options, I think, is if the pleasure arose from the pain the person was causing the cat, rather than from, say, anticipating the tasty meal it was going to make or being glad your freezing child was going to get a nice fur hat. Yes?

      Denying the cat would be more of a challenge, though ;)

  • Jerry

    “I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. ”

    Is “Could have chosen” a requirement, or is it enough to believe that you could have chosen? Am I not exercising free will when I believe I had a choice, even if the reality was that I did not? For example, I am sitting in the midst of a room with one door, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker telling me I must leave right now. Unbeknownst to me, the only door is locked from the outside and there is no possibility of leaving. Ignorant of that fact, however, I decide to defy the voice, and choose to stay in the room, never attempting to leave. I have exercised a decision of the will have I not, even though leaving was never an option?

    If so, free will is found not in the ability to make a different choice, but in the perception of that ability and ignorance of the future.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      Am I not exercising free will when I believe I had a choice, even if the reality was that I did not? For example, I am sitting in the midst of a room with one door, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker telling me I must leave right now. Unbeknownst to me, the only door is locked from the outside and there is no possibility of leaving. Ignorant of that fact, however, I decide to defy the voice, and choose to stay in the room, never attempting to leave. I have exercised a decision of the will have I not, even though leaving was never an option?

      Yes you have, but it has nothing to do with believing that you had a choice. The fact that you are prevented from acting on your choice to leave (by the locked door) has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that your choice itself was free. Successful execution of our choices is never guaranteed.

  • DFL42

    My favorite summation of this concept, from Reddit:

    “Free will is not a very well-defined concept, in my opinion. The way I see it, if you really think about it, the idea of free will sort of requires a deterministic perspective to be coherent.
    The short version: we are free to act on our desires, but our desires are ultimately predetermined. If you’re born with an appetite for cake, and you’re born being unable to stand the taste of pie, then if you need to decide to purchase a cake or a pie, you’re going to choose cake. That is you, freely acting on your proclivities. But your proclivities were, essentially, predetermined. You were always going to freely choose cake over pie. It’s deterministic AND free. Without having some form of preexisting wants and needs, we would have no desires on which to make decisions. In the context of having preexisting wants and needs, we are necessarily in a deterministic framework.
    Free will is a nonsensical idea without having desires. In the context of having desires, our free decisions are ultimately predicated on our desires, and our desires are predetermined.”

  • Lukas

    This guy is wrong, but what he says may be related to the reasons you say that you “have a general suspicion that the debate over free will is terrible at least in part because the definition of free will is incoherent.”

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/your-move-the-maze-of-free-will/

  • Patrick

    “To begin with, I have a general suspicion that the debate over free will is terrible at least in part because the definition of free will is incoherent.”

    This is definitely correct.

    “We’re not hoping simply to end up in equipoise, where our choices could go either way arbitrarily. An identity that persists through time does limit how our choices come out. That’s the point.”

    An identity that persists over time doesn’t contradict Coyne’s definition unless that identity literally determines your decisions, rather than merely predisposing them in particular directions.

    “(And, come to think of it, what’s the point of writing a persuasive essay against free will in the first place? Coyne must be acting from necessity, not hoping we’ll choose to change our mind).”

    That’s a shallow and ridiculous argument, and you should know it. There is no contradiction between saying that I wrote this response from necessity, and saying that I hope that you’ll change your mind. The falsehood of Coyne’s definition of free will does not entail the non existence of mental states.

    This is why Coyne’s argument* is so strong, in my opinion. Even you, while contradicting him, assumed the truth of a dualistic view of the mind, and interpreted the non existence of free will as denying that dualism.

    *Specifically, his argument that most people conceive of free will in a dualistic sense, and that its mendacious of philosophers to take advantage of the incoherence and falsehood of that definition in order to substitute in newer, less incoherent and false, but also totally different, definitions of free will.

    • leahlibresco

      Patrick, that’s a much more interesting defense of Coyne than I came up with. I’d love for other atheist commenters to respond, because I have such dualistic sympathies already that the reducto trap doesn’t quite spring for me.

      • @b

        >>free will means that your choice could have been different

        No, the re-run is identical in every way. So choice is same.

        Free will makes us “feel” like we could have choosen differently.

        When we make a choice, neuroscience shows us that our subconscious has decided (their equipment sees we chose left) THEN seconds later we will be consciously aware we’re finished choosing. (Then more seconds go by before our body moves)

        So we know we don’t have radical free will. Yet we still feel that our awareness is what’s driving the bus,
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homunculus_argument

    • deiseach

      But then Coyne’s argument is nothing more than a re-statement of <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan's_ass&quot;, which is all well and good, but in reality no hungry person ever starved to death because they were equidistant between two plates of food and could not decide which to eat first.

      We have all probably had the experience of “I can’t decide which meal/pair of shoes/music CD to buy”, but we’re none of us still standing in the shop or restaurant until we fall dead of inanition because we were so stricken by inability to choose; we either decided on one thing or decided not to purchase either and went off and did something else.

      If Coyne is seriously (rather than humorous exaggeration in a popular piece) saying that he can’t even decide what shirt to wear in the morning because he doesn’t even have the capacity to choose “I prefer my blue shirt to the white one”, then how does he explain the fact that he does manage to get dressed and out the door in the mornings? Habit is a different thing to not having free will; we all develop routines that we perform in an automatic manner, but that’s the same way that, once we learn to walk, we don’t have to consciously monitor “Now I extend my right foot and placing it on the ground bring my weight to bear on it while I swivel my hip to bring my left foot forward” – we just do it, because it’s become a memory action.

  • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

    1. Goodness me, what on earth is the ontological basis of the moral law? Where on earth does it come from?

    2. The problem with the modern morass over free will is that people have a deeply misguided notion of freedom. Freedom, we’re inclined to think, is a matter of pure indifference. But this is absurd, as everyone with a brain quickly realizes. Why? Because it means that if I’m free I can’t have any reason for doing whatever I freely choose to do, since a sufficient reason for action would negate my freedom. So this means that freedom and meaningfulness in action are mutually opposed: it is the defender of freedom, and not the determinist, it turns out, who is really the nihilist here. The determinist can recognize that there are good reasons for action, reasons which might determine a person to one course as opposed to another. The freedom-backer (aka “philosophical libertarian”, a confusing term if ever there was one) insists on the utter groundlessness of action: no efficient cause, no final end, nothing but itself.

    The Thomistic response is to point out that pure indifference is not freedom — that the will and the world are not utterly opposed to one another. What, then, is freedom? What does it concern? Well, freedom is a particular exercise of the human will, and the object of the will is the good, taken universally. If we see something and judge it to be good, we want it. But the particular good sought by the human will, the good toward which the human person is ordered as a whole, is happiness — the perfection of the human being, the satisfaction and rest of the will. This much is necessarily true for all of us. All the evil members of humanity, however cruel and unjust and vicious, have all been motivated by a desire for happiness.

    What, then, is choice? Choice is a matter of the selection of the means by which we will pursue this in-built goal of ours. It’s like this: the will rules the powers of the soul like a king rules his land. Whatever the king orders his subjects to do, they do. But the king depends on his subjects to advise and inform him. He will only be motivated to act on the basis of what he is told by them, but the choice to act or not to act remains with him alone. In this analogy the King is the will; the sense-appetites and passions are his advisers, the intellect and imagination, memory and senses are messengers which bear news about the condition of the realm.

    Given this analogy we begin to see the complexity of asking what the efficient cause of a human act is. First of all, the cause is the end for the sake of which a person chooses to act. Without the recognized possibility and goodness of that goal, the action would never have taken place. But then on another level the cause of action is the human intellect, which takes the information gathered by the senses and stored in imagination and memory, and makes a judgment about the goodness and possibility of the end. This judgment, once made, moves the will irresistibly. And yet, the will, commanding the intellect to act or not to act (though not in the content of its action), holds ultimate sway. To put it briefly: the will necessarily moves toward the good, but orders all the human faculties toward that end, so that it has the power of directing the person as a whole through the direction of its faculties to consider or not to consider some proper or disordered means for the attainment of happiness.

    Complicated, but not absurd and not nihilistic.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m working on question one! Am I going to see you this Sunday? We can discuss a bit more discursively in person.

  • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

    I plan to basically live here for the Triduum, so it’s pretty likely I’ll be here on Sunday. Eh, let’s just say it’s guaranteed. (Currently writing from the Library of the PFIC.)

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    Locke dismissed free will a long time ago. If I recall, his dismissal was fairly convincing. First he defines will as (I’m doing this from memory, so it’s rough) the human faculty to make a decision. So what does it mean to say that such a faculty is free? Does it mean that we can choose what we choose? This seems to make little sense, and anyway is then subject to the same question on a different level, whether or choice of choice is constrained.
    Perhaps there is a better definition? Certainly I have not seen one, but I stepped out of philosophy a while ago.

  • Jack M.

    Not so unevenly yoked after all.

  • Jack M.

    Oops. Meant unequally.

  • http://fester60613.wordpress.com fester60613

    Free will exists and determinism is hokum.
    It is my contention that the creative act (music composition, writing) is so specifically personal that it cannot possibly be the result of determinism.

    • David Pinsof

      I could just as well say that the spiritual act of letting Jesus into my heart is so specifically personal that it cannot possibly be a delusion.

    • anodognosic

      Hi, Fester, (scientific) determinism does not seem to me to be incompatible with personality and complexity, including that of the creative act. If chaotic systems can arise from even simple rules, it doesn’t seem farfetched that something as complex as the brain could produce outputs as varied and personal as the Brandenburg concertos, As I Lay Dying and the Pietà.

      So I guess my question is: what do YOU mean by determinism?

  • Pingback: If only I weren’t determined to fight about free will! | Unequally Yoked « I used to think I was crazy until realized I was merely a Xian.

  • deiseach

    “If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others.”

    Okay, let’s treat this argument seriously. That guy you see hitting his girlfriend, that woman slapping her child, that gang of kids kicking another kid lying on the ground – it’s not their fault, they can’t be held responsible for what they’re doing anymore than any other animal. You can’t say to them “You shouldn’t do that” because they’re only acting in accord with their genetic programming and their environment, the same way you would never think of saying to a monkey engaging in a dominance fight “You shouldn’t hit that smaller/weaker/female monkey”.

    So there is no use in constructing laws, because that assumes we do have “moral responsibility” and could have stopped ourselves from taking that money or hitting that man or burning down that building. Law says “you should/should not” and that is impossible to do or refrain from doing since there is no choice, there is only predetermined actions. Then “acts which hurt or help others” boils down to “acts which affect me”. Why should I care what happens to you if you’re not a blood relation and cannot be of use to me? Why should we treat criminals humanely, rather than execute them straight away – they’ve proven that they act to hurt others, they cannot be held responsible since they are only acting on their programming, we have no reliable methods of changing that programming as yet (only crude methods of deterrence and reward, and we seem to be better at constructing deterrence – make prison as bad as possible – than coming up with rewards to condition away from criminality).

    In fact, we can’t even speak of “criminals” versus society, since there are only competing groups scrapping over resources; criminal gangs are a small group banded together to take benefits for themselves from what they see as easy prey or losers in the dominance struggle; the rest of us are merely a larger band that can use our strength to remove these competitors who are taking our potential mates or territory or bananas money. There is therefore no real difference between the mugger and the person he robs; the mugger uses violence to attain his ends but so does the rest of the community when it uses coercion and force (police, the courts, laws, prison) to deal with them.

    • Touchstone

      You can’t say to them “You shouldn’t do that” because they’re only acting in accord with their genetic programming and their environment. You can’t say to them “You shouldn’t do that” because they’re only acting in accord with their genetic programming and their environment, the same way you would never think of saying to a monkey engaging in a dominance fight “You shouldn’t hit that smaller/weaker/female monkey”.

      This is good rhetoric and silly philosophy.

      Yes, imagining other people as deterministic processes rather than free agents inspire us to reason with them, so we probably shouldn’t imagine them that way. That said, “reasoning with” a zombie works just fine. You’re putting one more input into his deterministic behavior-driving algorithm, and potentially one with the capacity to change his behavior profoundly.

      That said, I’ve never understood why people don’t find the sort of compatiblism expressed eloquently by Raymond Smullyanhere compelling:

      God: You are absolutely right! I certainly could not stop you [from violating the laws of nature]. Nothing could stop you. But there is no need to stop you, because you could not even start! As Goethe very beautifully expressed it, “In trying to oppose Nature, we are, in the very process of doing so, acting according to the laws of nature!” Don’t you see that the so-called “laws of nature” are nothing more than a description of how in fact you and other beings do act? They are merely a description of how you act, not a prescription of of how you should act, not a power or force which compels or determines your acts. To be valid a law of nature must take into account how in fact you do act, or, if you like, how you choose to act.

      Mortal:
      So you really claim that I am incapable of determining to act against natural law?

      God:
      It is interesting that you have twice now used the phrase “determined to act” instead of “chosen to act.” This identification is quite common. Often one uses the statement “I am determined to do this” synonymously with “I have chosen to do this.” This very psychological identification should reveal that determinism and choice are much closer than they might appear. Of course, you might well say that the doctrine of free will says that it is you who are doing the determining, whereas the doctrine of determinism appears to say that your acts are determined by something apparently outside you. But the confusion is largely caused by your bifurcation of reality into the “you” and the “not you.” Really now, just where do you leave off and the rest of the universe begin? Or where does the rest of the universe leave off and you begin? Once you can see the so-called “you” and the so-called “nature” as a continuous whole, then you can never again be bothered by such questions as whether it is you who are controlling nature or nature who is controlling you. Thus the muddle of free will versus determinism will vanish. If I may use a crude analogy, imagine two bodies moving toward each other by virtue of gravitational attraction. Each body, if sentient, might wonder whether it is he or the other fellow who is exerting the “force.” In a way it is both, in a way it is neither. It is best to say that it is the configuration of the two which is crucial.

      • Touchstone

        That should read *doesn’t inspire us…

  • Ray

    “it’s not their fault, they can’t be held responsible for what they’re doing anymore than any other animal. You can’t say to them ‘You shouldn’t do that’ ”

    Funny. I’ve seen people do exactly that with their dogs. And they might even have some success if their dogs weren’t one of those little yippy devilspawn breeds that try to bite everyone’s ankles. But seriously, training children below the age of 3 and training animals really doesn’t look all that different to me, and of course you have all those heroic animal rescue anecdotes to contend with if you want to argue that animals are just mechanically following orders.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Free will vs. determinism is, I think, a dead-end irresolvable debate because ultimately neither side can prove itself, only assert. Freedom? It feels like we have it but we cannot repeat the clock to find out. Determinism? Its a methodological assumption of science, not an ontological conclusion.

    I have been moving towards the concept of agency instead, which just means that I can act (or not). I think both sides can agree on the existence of agency , they would just disagree on how it comes about and whether it is “free” or not. But I’m not sure how relevant freedom really is here. Is the relevant issue action (practice), or what’s going on behind the action (theory)? I say stick with the known level and avoid the unknown level – unless of course its really bothering you and you don’t care that its unresolvable. :)

    By the way, at least as far as I know, the traditional Christian response the freedom vs. determinism has always been “both.” We act freely, but God, being outside of time, knows how it will all turn out. The key (for me) is that just knowing the future does not actually cause that future to come about. We still freely choose, God just happens to know what we will choose. Foreknowledge =/= predestination. Predestination = determinism. But does foreknowledge = determinism? I don’t think so.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    I’ll just add that the fact that the debate always seems to make people’s heads hurt makes me suspicious that we are determined and that as we get close to figuring it out our evolutionary programming has to work harder and harder to keep up the illusion, finally fatiguing us to the point of stopping, thus preserving the illusion. The harder we push, the harder the illusion pushes back. Darn clever.


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