Responding to Carrier on Free Will (I): Control

Responding to Carrier on Free Will (I): Control December 27, 2020

One Christmas present I received this year is a blog piece by Richard Carrier (“Why Syllogisms Usually Suck: Free Will Edition”) going to town on one of my old free will articles expressing determinism/libertarian free will issues in a syllogism: “A Syllogism for Determinism“. His article was built on the foundation of a previous one: “Free Will in the Real World … and Why It Matters“. It is this initial article I will mainly discuss today in setting up his more explicit arguments with my piece on the syllogism. His are both long articles, so I will only deal with part his first one for the purposes of this piece.

Rather than my reaction to this being a kneejerk “You said what!!!” and attacking it and him in a sense of entrenched defensiveness, this is exactly why I blog – to refine my position if I am wrong in what I say and claim. I intend to deal with this in the way in which I should – find out where we agree and state this, find out where we disagree and state this in a level-headed way. As you readers will probably know, I rate Carrier an awful lot, having drawn on his work for my Nativity book, my upcoming book on the Resurrection, and enjoying many of his books and online works, so this should be interesting.

To quickly define some terms: hard determinism is the belief that the universe is causally determined (either that quantum indeterminacy does not exist or, if it does, it does not help free willers), free will is the belief that we can consciously decide to do otherwise in a given situation (but this will be contested, we shall see) and compatibilism is the belief that the universe is causally determined but that we still have free will. This latter position requires a definition of free will that is not the one I have just used. This will be an argument, to some degree, over axioms qua definitions.

As I originally said in my piece, the syllogism wasn’t mine, but here it is nonetheless:

So what I really want to do is encapsulate these ideas into a robust syllogism. Here is one such example:


(1) Every human choice or action is an event.

(2) Every event has its explanatory cause.

(3) Therefore, every human choice or action has its explanatory cause.

Building upon (3), we have our second syllogism:

(3) Every human choice or action has its explanatory cause.

(4) To have explanatory cause is not to be free.

(5) Therefore, human choice or action is not free.

(Solomon and Higgins, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction into Philosophy – Free Will and Determinism)

Where we agree

We agree on an awful lot and central to our agreement is the rather fundamental component of the discussion of these matters: that libertarian free will (LFW) or contra-causal free will is incoherent and doesn’t exist. As he states:

In no actual application does “free will” ever mean “violating the laws of causation.” That’s just some claptrap theologians and philosophers made up, by forgetting that philosophy should pay attention to reality before trying to make up anything at all.

Thus, the philosophy of free will in terms of whether LFW is tenable is not up for grabs between us – we agree that this thing does not exist.

But this is where it gets a little more contested.

As Carrier realises, this comes down to definitions and he rightly quotes me as saying, “To be fair, he has conceded that if we define free will as compatibilists do, then he agrees free will exists.”

Which is to say that if we agree that “free will”, in an unqualified sense, means the ability to do what we want (in terms of personal volition), then we have free will. This is the sort of Schopenhauer area: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” I take the compatibilist sense one level further to have our will causally determined.

And this, here, is the battleground.

What is and isn’t useful

Where we don’t disagree is concerning the garden of forking paths. If we could theoretically rewind to a given moment, an agent would choose what they originally did again, quantum indeterminacy aside. But it’s what we do with this information – whether or not it is useful – that presents the central area of dispute here.

For Carrier, this is a discussion about control. He appears to adopt a classical compatibilist approach to free will, which is to say free will is compatible with determinism, so free will isn’t, as mentioned, the ability to choose otherwise in a given situation ceteris paribus, but the idea that an agent is the author of their future. In the same way that a thermostat controls the temperature in a room, an agent controls their future, irrespective of causality running through both and mapping back to the Big Bang:

The Big Bang is completely irrelevant to whether my thermostat is controlling my heater or not—as becomes obvious when, for example, we are trying to find out why my heater turns on at one time and not another. “The Big Bang caused that” is factually true (in a hyper-literal, causally determinist sense), but completely useless information, if what you want to know is why my heater is behaving as it is; even more so if you want my heater to behave differently. Because either way, you’d better figure out that it’s my thermostat that is controlling it, and where my thermostat is, and how to reset it. That’s how the real world works. The ivory tower can go freeze to death for its complete failure to grasp how thermo|stats work, while it incessantly rambles on about the Big Bang controlling my heater. That’s simply not what “control” means….

“Where I want to set it” is my will. And my will is free not when it is uncaused. Wholly regardless of even physics, every decision must logically necessarily “have causes.” Even decisions that are “random” must be caused to be so by some underlying fact or prior decision or reason, and being wholly random cannot in any sense be said to be caused “by us” (and as such, the idea of “contra-causal free will” is actually a logical impossibility). So “free of being caused” is not what anyone in any real world application means by freedom of the will. Rather, my will is free when nothing and no one interferes with it—when what I will is allowed to happen—and that means, no one tries to replace my will with theirs (like someone coercing me to act against my own will), and nothing thwarts my will (like a defective thermostat that constantly resets to some value I did not set it to).

In the pragmatic, day-to-day sense of understanding pragmatic considerations, he is right. There is nothing wrong about this – it is only whether I and others accept this as a the definition of free will. I will park real world applications until the next piece as this is a core notion for Carrier’s case and requires a lot of discussion.

It is worth talking a little about causality before we discuss control. See:

This (for Carrier above), however, is the classic compatibilist approach: man is free in making decisions if he is not in chains, or doesn’t have a gun against his heads or is not being hindered in any other way – where there is no external interference. And, as I discuss in my book on free will, this is fine if we are happy to discount internal interference. In many senses, I could completely agree with Carrier.

But I am not so sure discounting internal interference is warranted or, as we might see, somewhat arbitrary.

It is vital, here to read my piece “Whitman, tumours, the neurotypical and moral responsibility” because this shows that we are happy to see interference when it is from anomalous, easy-to-comprehend internal causes such as a brain tumour, but that this is arbitrary differentiation from neurotypical or regular internal causes (my brain state without a tumour). We can then get onto further issues of things like tiredness, hunger, hormonal imbalances and so on. The list is huge. All of these affect our control, our brain, our motherboard that controls our future (immediate or long-term).

Thus, if Carrier is content only to consider external causes as relevant for free will, there could be an issue.

For example, if in causal circumstance CC1, I don’t kill Harry, then what do we make of CC2 where I kill Harry due to being tired and irritable? What if this tiredness is as a result of something I previously decided to do (stay up late the night before, CC2.1)? What if it was something external to me, such that my neighbours kept me up and wound me up all night (CC2.2)? My “decision” to kill Harry in CC2.2 was, at the time of killing, not “interfered” with in Carrier’s sense (externally) such that I wasn’t forced to, but it was internally whereby, had I been completely neurotypical and regular (as per CC1), then I wouldn’t have killed him, but instead I was tired and irritable, and this was itself externally caused.

The point is, I think Carrier’s analysis is perhaps too simplistic. Sure, we can still blame me in a pragmatic sense – JP killed Harry. But this doesn’t help us understand why or work out how to prevent it in future. And that blame needs to be very carefully analysed and used.

Carrier goes to lengths, I think, to differentiate between causality and control.

Causality vs Control

In the second piece previously listed (Kalam, Causality and God), I quote from my book on the Kalam, which should cast some light on considerations of causality:

With this in mind, let us look at causality and the problems with it. Let me analogise to make the point as clear as possible.

Smith is driving along the road over the speed limit. He is tired due to a heavy work schedule and a deadline which meant a lack of sleep the night before and is late for a meeting. One of his favourite songs comes on the radio and he starts singing along to it. On the pavement (sidewalk) a drunk man falls over into a bin which the Borough Council had just put in place to improve the cleanliness of the town. The bin is knocked off its stand and rolls into the road. Smith sees the bin late as his attention is distracted. He swerves, to avoid it. At the same time, a boy is trying to cross the road without looking. Smith is swerving into him and has to reverse his swerve significantly the other way, hitting a pothole in the poorly maintained road. This sends the car out of his control and onto the pavement. Jones, who had been walking by, slips on some soapy water draining from the carwash he is walking past. Whilst Jones is picking himself up, Smith’s car mounts the pavement, hits Jones, and kills him instantly. What is the cause of Jones’ death?

This is a very difficult, but standard causal question. The universe is not an isolation of one cause and one effect. It is a matrix of cause and effect with each effect being causal further down in something like the continuum. One could say that the impact of the car on Jones’ head kills him. But even then, at what nanosecond of impact, what degree of the force killed him? This is arbitrarily cutting off the causal continuum at 1, half or quarter of a second before the effect (Jones’ death). Having said that, the cause could be said to be the lack of oxygen to the brain, or the destruction of his vital organs. We could also accuse the bin, the drunk or anything else as being a cause, because without each of these, the final effect would not have taken place.[i]

As a result, I would posit that the cause of Jones’ death is one long continuum which cannot be arbitrarily sliced up temporally.[ii] As such, it stretches back to, say, the Big Bang—the start of the causal chain. In terms of free will, we call this the causal circumstance. Because the universe is one big causal soup, I would claim that any effect would be the makeup of the universe at any one point, like a snapshot. This makeup that leads to any given effect cannot be sliced up arbitrarily but is the entire connected matrix of ‘causes and effect’ (for want of a better term) since the Big Bang.

In other words, there is only one cause. The universe at the Big Bang (or similar).

If I am picking up a cup of tea to drink from it now, then we could just look at a few seconds before this as to the cause. Perhaps it was just my intention. But how about the notion that my parents introduced me to tea, and all those instances of tea drinking which came from that that now enforce my intentions? What if tea had not evolved? What if my grandparents had not given birth to my parents, and them to me? What if humanity had not evolved? What if the Earth had not harboured life? Without all of these, I would not have picked up my cup of tea. They are all relevant (and all the bits in between, and connecting them to other parts of the matrix) to my drinking tea now.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett uses another example about the French Foreign Legion that he himself adapted from elsewhere to illustrate problems with a basic notion of causality, of A simplistically causing B:

Not that deadlocks must always be breakable. We ought to look with equanimity on the prospect that sometimes circumstances will fail to pinpoint a single “real cause” of an event, no matter how hard we seek. A case in point is the classic law school riddle:

Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred, and wants him dead. During the night before Fred’s trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom’s intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the “water” will slowly run out. Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst. Who caused his death?

This thought experiment defends the thesis that causality is, at times, impossible to untangle or define. I would take this one very large step further in saying that the causality of such an effect, of any effect, is traceable back to the first cause itself: the Big Bang or whatever creation event you ascribe to.[iii]


What Carrier is doing is focussing on control as opposed to causation. And this is absolutely fine, being pragmatically useful in certain contexts. Control, here, is perhaps a reflection of ideas of proximal causation (mentioned above) combined with an element of seemingly autonomous programming, so the thermostat controls the temperature. But does this ignore the idea that, in a sense, the programming of the thermostat is what controls the temperature? We can see this by looking at what we think when it goes wrong.

The thermostat fails to work as it should. This gives us two options:

  1. It is the fault of the manufacturer. I look for the receipt and return it (let’s not worry about warranty times!), blaming them for poor design and/or manufacture.
  2. There are environmental reasons why this happened (water leaked into the motherboard, there was a powercut, etc.). I “blame” these reasons and seek to rectify the environment now and/or for the future.

What we shouldn’t rationally do is blame the thermostat per se, without recourse to trying to understand why it failed to work. We shouldn’t blame the thermostat as an independent entity although we might often do that in our press for time and lack of desire to properly understand the world around us.

When it works, the thermostat appears to be the locus of control for the temperature in the room, and when it fails to work it is because it fails to control the temperature in the room. But this doesn’t help us when trying to rectify when it fails to work and what we need to do to change this. If you shift the problem back to the end-user (as opposed to the thermostat alone), then we appear to have the same issue. What caused the agent to fail to set it – was it externally environmental forgetting because of work stress, or the phone going etc.), biological (e.g. internally environmental – generally forgetful, not reading the instructions properly etc.), genetic (i.e., less changeable reasons baked into the agent)?

But is the thermostat not meaningfully different to the end-user? Concerning this difference, we need to look at intention, to which we will turn in the next post.

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