Responding to Carrier on Free Will (II): Intention

Responding to Carrier on Free Will (II): Intention December 28, 2020

Yesterday, I introduced you to the first piece in my response to Richard Carrier as follows:

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“…

And so on. Where yesterday’s piece was on control, today’s will continue by talking about intention. You might well want to make reference to the previous piece.

He used a thermostat analogy, that I discussed in some detail previously.


For Carrier, there is a sizeable difference between the end-user and the thermostat – intention:

Free will thus requires intent; more particularly, conscious assent. A will that is free is a desire we consciously want to satisfy, and which is not prevented from being satisfied, and which we informedly assent to satisfying. It is not a desire “that is uncaused.” All desires are caused. That has nothing to do with the matter.

Okay, this is fine, though might need some unpacking. There are many terms that I am not sure that Carrier conflates, or at least seems to:

Yes, in some cases, that does mean having free will requires being free of interference in choosing what we want, free to determine our own will.

I think there is perhaps almost equivocation (something he accuses me of in the second article) or bait and switch, or just conflation of terms, in the use of choose, control, determine and cause, as used throughout both pieces. Perhaps not – I’m sure he will disagree.

Carrier states:

Free will means acting with autonomy, a Greek loan word that means, literally, “self-controlling.” That which is autonomous is that which operates on its own. That doesn’t mean free of all external causation; it means free of interference in enacting what it wants, and in assenting to what it wants. An autonomous state means a state that no other government can override the decisions of. It is “self-governing” not in the sense that it can ignore the laws of physics or the demands of trade agreements or external threats and internal difficulties. And it ceases to really be “autonomous” if its internal decisions are being manipulated by external powers, rather than left to its own transparent devices; if its people are being tricked into thinking the decisions being made are their own, it is no longer really their decisions governing the outcome. Likewise a person who is “self-governing,” who acts with “self-control,” who “decides for themselves.” These never mean “free of all causes.” They mean only free of particular kinds of causes—those that would actually subvert their will; not those that would merely determine their will.

The idea of “self-controlling” is what we have been discussing. If an agent fails to be able to self-control as they “normally” would, what does this say about control? What if this is contrary to their intention? We could talk about degrees of intention as well here, though the word desire (or volition) is probably better. A first-order desire might be to smoke a cigarette because you are addicted and need the hit; a second-order desire (a desire about a desire) is not to have the cigarette because you want to get healthy and quit. Therefore, you can have several orders of volition impacting on self-control and these can all be affected by the environment and genetics.

Carrier continues:

So it is not merely that fate “saddled” us with a bunch of random desires we can do nothing about. In actual fact most of our desires we can change, through decision, habituation, and reorientation of belief; and of the few we can’t change, most have objective utilities, such that we would have given them to ourselves (or something their equivalent) even had evolution not. Only those very few desires that remain that (A) we can’t change and (B) even on adequate knowledge we objectively would get rid of, if we could, are desires that subvert our freedom of will. And we always acknowledge this. That some things, sometimes thwart our will does not mean we have no free will ever (as if only omnipotent deities could “have” free will). That isn’t what we ever mean by “free will” in the real world; “free will” is never a synonym of “omnipotence.”

But I don’t think subversion is necessarily the only expression of a lack of free will here, and this is why it is important to read my article “Whitman, tumours, the neurotypical and moral responsibility” because, from it, you can see that causality and determining factors are equally at play in scenarios of regular behaviour (i.e., not subversion). In it, I include:

Behaviour X is caused by brain state/neural circumstance/genotype Y. The commenter here is separating neurotypical people from non-neurotypical. This is problematic and perhaps entirely subjective anyway. Another oft stated highly problematic issue, which could be what he was stating, is that non-neurtypical behaviours are uniquely caused by certain circumstances. I.e. autism is caused by X (brains state, genes, brain dysfunction etc). But of course, we should be able to infer that since causation is happening in such abnormal situations, to claim that mental causation from physical scenarios does not take place in the neurotypical is special pleading.

In other words, because someone ends up doing something ‘normal’ does not mean they are exempt from causality. Rather that a ‘normal’ behaviour results from ‘normal’ brain states (labelling notwithstanding)….

I would say, it’s true that we can have non-disrupted cognition, from neurotypical brain states etc. This uses EXACTLY the same causality. It’s just easier to understand causality in subjects which exhibit non-typical behaviour. But the causality is equally in place for the control group.

So I would say that, with this uniform, universal causality, we have identical scenarios: brain states and physical phenomena causing mental phenomena. That some of the phenomena were in some subjective sense a-typical (tumour etc) is neither here nor there. To claim this makes the causality categorically different is nothing more than special pleading. The neurotypical person may have fully functioning rational architecture, but they have no control over choosing that architecture. The outcome is still determined by such processes.

Another way to put it, neurotypical brains don’t suddenly give the agent special ability to evade logic and philosophy and magically allow the agent the ability to do otherwise.

How should we be understanding these notions of self-control and causal influences? Well, as indeed Carrier agrees (if I recall correctly from his excellent Sense and Goodness without God book), any “should” statement requires a goal. The point of these free will debates is surely in how useful they are; and that is where we will turn to in the next piece. Let’s stay on intention, but in the meantime, Carrier lays out that the usefulness is central to his case, as he continues:

And this is actually why free will matters. We don’t want to be passengers in a life someone else is controlling. And if you want to be in control of your own life, you have to first acknowledge what the difference is between being in control of it, and not in control of it—the difference between being a passive slave to others’ opinions and the happenstance trends of the external world or random walks of your internal whims, and being a person who actively examines and vets who they are and what they want and the decisions they are making, and begins selecting only those they informedly assent to on a basis of evidence and reason, and thus ends being a wholly passive victim of social forces.

That difference matters. And that is why free will matters. If you start training yourself to see no free will in anything, you are training yourself to see no difference between being the manipulable slave of society or an independent thinker who actually chooses who they become, what they want and believe, based on evidence and reason, rather than influence and easiness. You will be training yourself to see no difference between being the puppet and being the puppeteer; which ensures the puppet you will be.

Differing degrees

Although Carrier admits that we can have free will in degrees in other parts…

Already, that one can have different amounts of free will proves free will exists—because obviously you can’t have “more” or “less” of something that doesn’t even exist. But more importantly, only by understanding what free will really is, and how to increase your degree of it, will you increase your degree of it.

…he also seems to treat it as a digital idea, that we either have it or we don’t. Surely, the amount that we are in control needs to be quantified if we are going to be held to account for our free will use in a court of law. But how much do environmental and biological factors (tiredness, hormones, someone winding us up, an experiential history of X and Z) and genetic factors interfere with control and even intention? Regularly (in my neuro-normative state), I intend to stay healthy, but right now, I’m depressed and anxious and intend to stay on my sofa (remember different orders of desire from earlier). On the one hand, Carrier appears to recognise shades of grey and, on the other hand, he appears to paint things with broad brushes of black and white.

Perhaps this whole thing would be cleared up if we just didn’t call it “free will” but “volition” instead? I wonder whether we would be having this discussion if this had always been the case.

Still, it comes down to praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. Can we praise or blame someone for doing something they always would have done in that scenario given the tools they have at that given point?

Carrier concludes:

You cannot increasingly free yourself from manipulation, coercion, external control, violation and subversion of your autonomy, if you don’t believe “freedom” or “autonomy” even exist. Hard determinism thus condemns you to being the victim of manipulation, coercion, external control, violation and subversion of your autonomy, by denying there is any difference between their presence or absence; it then even virally recruits you into trying to make others into victims of these themselves. A proper grasp of what free will really is, and why it matters, and how to increase (and not diminish) everyone’s proportion of it is a requirement for anyone who wants to make the world a better place, and their lives better in it.

This goes back to my previous piece in this series by point of fact that Carrier fails to include internal influences that may subvert an agent from what they might otherwise choose – because they are still the author. And some of these internal interferences are externally caused and/or taken into account in courts of law anyway: for example, if someone was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, then their executive control functions are impaired; or perhaps being antagonised by a third party over a period of time before “breaking”. You can think of many other scenarios that illustrate the incredibly nuanced landscape here.

A given agent is victim to a vast array of internal and external influences that go into a function machine that determine the behaviour of an agent. I think Carrier makes an arguably arbitrary category differentiation in how he derives his version of free will that is, at the very least, exceptionally fuzzy around the edges. He seems to see an agent as a non-porous entity. As a commenter on my previous piece stated:

Daniel Dennett observes that conclusions about free will depend on where one draws the circle around the self doing the willing. Drawing the circle tightly around intentional choice making leads to the conclusion that free will is quite limited. Drawing the circle more widely to include the sub-conscious realm of personal experience, personality, and genetics leads to a conclusion of greater free will. Ultimately the self is a social construct, and we do well to construct ourselves broadly and accept this larger, messier territory as the raw material for our creative lives.

In a connected way, though perhaps in reverse, Carrier draws an impermeable line around the executive controlling self, where I might have a much wider circle (or, indeed, no circle at all).

But the question remains: is his distinction of classical compatibility useful. Because he is not claiming anything I disagree with other than how we define certain terms – the properties we ascribe to the term “free will”. As mentioned, it is not like he is arguing for contra-causal/libertarian free will and I am saying that such a thing is philosophically impossible. We both agree that LFW is untenable. What we disagree on is not content, per se, but labelling; and in adhering to a certain labelling structure, whether this itself informs our psychology and decision making (irrespective as to whether we could believe otherwise in a given scenario, since we both believe we couldn’t!):

Hard determinism will not help you do that. More likely, it will hinder you in any such advancement. And this is why compatibilism is not merely correct belief, it is essential to bettering yourself as a human being. All the supposed “benefits” of hard determinism—like acquiring a more objective grasp and thus (ironically) more control over your own emotions, or a more sanguine perspective on the unchangeables of life, or more sympathy for the passive victims that society or circumstance has molded into fools or monsters—are all achievable, indeed more honestly and informedly achieved, without hard determinism. Compatibilism produces all these same benefits in full measure, without the harmful effect of believing—and trying to convince others to believe—that no one can be more free than they are, or that no one is ever free at all.

We will turn to this in the next piece.

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