Responding to Carrier on Free Will (III): Syllogisms, Laypeople & Christians

Responding to Carrier on Free Will (III): Syllogisms, Laypeople & Christians December 31, 2020

Recently, 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“…

My piece looked at ideas of control, and my second piece looked at ideas of intention. This piece will look at the general understanding of what the terms mean before I go on to talking of law in the next piece.

First of all, some agreement.

Agreement on syllogisms

As I stated in my previous piece, the syllogism I used wasn’t mine and was attributed clearly in my piece. Indeed, most of my syllogism article is taken from third-party writers looking at the issue.

Carrier states:

The problem is that almost everything in the world is not a logically necessary truth but a question of empirical fact, and empirical conclusions can only be reached inductively, not deductively; yet the usual syllogisms people think to use are not inductive arguments. Deductive syllogisms can really only extract information from the premises; they cannot circularly prove the truth of those premises. Worse, as those premises often have a nonzero probability of being false, and standard deductive syllogisms aren’t designed to coherently commute these probabilities into the conclusion, you have to construct syllogisms as “if, then” statements (“if” the premises are true, “then” the conclusion is true), which only tells you that the conclusion is already inherent in the conjunction of the premises. In other words, you are just extracting the consequences of your own assumptions. You aren’t actually proving anything factual. That would require proving the premises true. And that’s a lot harder to do “with a syllogism.”

Most people don’t get how probabilistic or inductive reasoning even works. In a sense, the relative simplicity of deductive syllogisms seduces people into using them when they should be avoiding them as useless to the purpose. And so you get a lot of really terrible syllogisms, that people (even professional philosophers) believe “prove” what they purport. Some of the most common failures when doing this are equivocation fallacies (covertly switching the meaning of a key word somewhere between premise and conclusion), question-begging (assuming the conclusion true, just differently worded, in a premise), and false lemmas (claiming a list of options exhausts all possibilities, when in fact an important possibility—indeed often the one most likely to be true—has been omitted).

I totally agree. I agree and add that this was a major part of my criticism of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) in my book Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument [UK]. See pages 7-15 where I discuss the form of the argument and show that, certainly in the case of the KCA, the deductive argument devolves to an inductive one anyway. Deductive arguments are definitional and semantic as opposed to the empirical, probabilistic nature of inductive arguments.

I guess, in looking for deductive arguments, it is not a case of mutual exclusivity. I have spent years communicating the vast array of empirical findings that support causal determinism in genetics, behavioural science, psychology, sociology and so on. These are inductive arguments. Looking for a deductive argument in no way invalidates those findings. This is about approaching an argument from both directions. I never said that, in setting out a deductive syllogism, this was the only way to defeat the notion of libertarian free will (LFW). Far, far from it.

LFW and atheism

Where we do disagree, as well as on the usefulness of this whole enterprise (see the next piece), is in what Carrier sets out here:

Atheist philosopher Jonathan MS Pearce has attempted his own “syllogism” to disprove the existence of free will (in A Syllogism for Determinism), and ironically, he says “the core to” his “disbelief” is “the philosophical incoherence of the idea of free will.” So he’s even an atheist because he falsely believes in the nonexistence of free will. To be fair, he has conceded that if we define free will as compatibilists do, then he agrees free will exists. So his error appears to be living in the ivory tower, and thus not noticing that in every real world application “free will” only means what the compatibilists note it means. There is therefore no use for the “ivory tower” definition. So why are we still talking about it?

First of all, as I clearly stated in my piece on the syllogism, it is not my own but was taken from Solomon and Higgins, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction into Philosophy – Free Will and Determinism. I even prefaced it with “here is one such example“. Therefore, Carrier is misrepresenting me here as thinking that I have developed this syllogism and it is central to my disbelief.

The syllogism isn’t central to my disbelief per se, but the lack of LFW is by point of fact that I often say Christians need to give an account of LFW in light of science and philosophy for their idea of God to get off the ground. The orthodox understanding of the Christian God supervenes on LFW.

In fact, the more I read that paragraph, the angrier I get with Carrier for some disingenuous tactics (or sloppy work). And I like Carrier a lot.

…ironically, he says “the core to” his “disbelief” is “the philosophical incoherence of the idea of free will.” So he’s even an atheist because he falsely believes in the nonexistence of free will.

He knows well that I am talking about LFW as free will (FW), whereas he defines FW as compatibilist free will (CFW). But me, as a hard determinist, and he as a compatibilist, both deny the existence of LFW. He just redefines free will as essentially being able to do what one wants, even if what one wants is itself determined. And, as he accepts I say, that is fine if that is how you want to define it. The beliefs we both have over the philosophical content remain the same and agreed. So I do not “falsely believe in the nonexistence of free will” because he fully knows what my definition is and he agrees that LFW does not exist. The falsity, in his eyes, is my ascription of the label FW to the properties inherent in LFW.

Carrier is being semantically loose here and I don’t much like it.

Furthermore, I am an atheist for a whole bunch of reasons. The free will argument was a relatively late one. But now that I know it, orthodox theism cannot overcome it and I think it is one of the strongest arguments out there to the point that is should be this argument that atheist debaters should attack theists with in public debates. But to say I am an atheist because of this argument is problematic.

Free will beliefs in laypeople

So his error appears to be living in the ivory tower, and thus not noticing that in every real world application “free will” only means what the compatibilists note it means.

This is simply not true. He provides no real empirical evidence for this. I can tell you, empirically, that almost every Christian I have ever argued with, including the ones here, in my philosophy groups, and so on, have believed in LFW. And also most non-Christians, including family members, friends and colleagues. The default belief is that people can consciously choose otherwise in a given scenario. This is a negation of both hard determinism and soft determinism (compatibilism).

Indeed, ‘Trick Slattery, who has himself written a book on free will, stated this to Carrier’s sentence above (on my social media page):

This is complete and utter nonsense and his own inductive standards denote it as nonsense. For the common layperson, it is extremely rare to find one that aligns with the philosophical compatibilist. Rather, they almost all believe in realist alternate possibilities that they have a say over (that sort of “freedom)’….which is NOT the compatibilist variety. This is not only common sense, but also various studies denote this as well and there are none that denote that this sort of “freedom” is an ivory tower conception. It is a common layperson belief. It is the compatibilist version that is “obscure”.

He continued:

No Richard Carrier, all studies on this topic show that common laypeople have libertarian conceptions of free will embedded – and it all depends on the context of the questions to get to that. You may want to start with “Folk Intuitions on Free Will” (Nichols)

In fact even when given an entirely deterministic scenario in which alternate possibilities are not a possibility, and asked to accept that on its face – they still smuggle in alternate possibilities, especially when someone does a wrongdoing. This is displayed in “Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility” (Nahmias)

It also should be noted that they do this less with the exact same wording except a benign or beneficial action rather than a wrongdoing, which means they rely on alternate possibilities (LFW) in order to blame. Other studies show that when pressed people have deep rooted libertarian free will beliefs that underlie all of the so called “compatibilist” ideas. There are also studies showing that the more free will belief one has the more retributive they are….which denotes “just deserts”…in fact in the US the very legal system is based on the notion of ‘just deserts’, which has LFW at base level.

For example “Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief” and “Free will and punishment: a mechanistic view of human nature reduces retribution.”

And the one study that tries to denote a compatibilist light version neglects to ask the participants about alternate possibilities or if they could have done otherwise in a way that would have been up to them….which we already know how that turns out when it is asked. But note here that even when they give compatibilist responses of free will being compatible with determinism, it is really an incoherent version that still has alternate possibilities embedded, not what philosophical compatibilists denote as “free will”. So even so called compatibilist light notions are really libertarian when looked at the actual things they believe (realist alternate possibilities that they have a say over).

By the way, you cannot look at “actual legal decisions, medical ethics reports” as evidence for compatibilist notions, they have no such thing, you need to go with actual free will studies here. What we can note is the types of retributive systems we have that only LFW really supports, and how places like Norway are so much more progressive in rehabilitative systems rather than punishing systems. In fact our whole system of economics is based on a sort of meritocracy that demands LFW at base level….but that is a whole other topic. There are also studies that link stronger free will belief to just world theory and right wing ideology.

At the very least you cannot say that there is evidence that supports that common layperson hold the sorts of free will beliefs that philosophical compatibilists denote…..that is simply against the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. It is also against common sense, in which a lack of seeing all the causal variables gives people the obvious ‘feeling’ that all options were real possibilities and that they could have selected one of the others in a way that the switch would have been up to them.

Let’s look at some evidence ourselves:

We linked between the social psychology and experimental philosophy paradigms for the study of folk intuitions and beliefs regarding the concept of free will to answer three questions: (1) What intuitions do people have about free will and determinism? (2) Do free will beliefs predict differences in free will and determinism intuitions? and (3) Is there more to free will and determinism than experiencing certainty or uncertainty about the nature of the universe? Overall, laypersons viewed the universe as allowing for human indeterminism, and they did so with certainty. [“Laypersons’ Beliefs and Intuitions About Free Will and Determinism: New Insights Linking the Social Psychology and Experimental Philosophy Paradigms” – Feldman & Chandrashek]

One of the most in-depth studies took 900 subjects from the US and 900 from Singapore and compared them. The majority of US respondents had libertarian views but this, interestingly, shifted to more compatibilist views in Singapore. Determinism is a weakly held belief all round. But the results showed confliction. This shows that the philosophically uneducated laypeople really do believe in LFW but also understand causal determinism and that everything has an explanation. Rather than this support the idea that laypeople believe in compatibilism, I would suggest this data shows that laypeople actually simultaneously hold contradictory positions.

The paper is well worth a read. A key part is this:

As stated above, one major intuition that might be closely related to free will beliefs is libertarianism, the belief that we have free will because the physical world is not fully determined [14]. Agreement to central tenets of libertarian, incompatibilist theories is assessed in two items of part2 of the FWI (‘ability to do otherwise’, ‘unmoved mover’), and we first assessed agreement to these statements in the US and SGP. Most participants agreed with item 1 (‘ability to do otherwise’), in the US (76.6%), and in SGP (83.2%).

But this is in contradiction to the beliefs about causal determinism. I think the paper inclines towards allowing these same LFW people to hold compatibilist leaning beliefs (i.e., in causal explanations) and then seeing this as compatibilism as opposed to contradiction. This is contradiction. This is good evidence that people do not, in the majority, hold nuanced compatibilist views, but hold to LFW and determinism. This is, indeed, evidence to support what I have voiced elsewhere (e.g. in my book on the topic), that previous studies on free will belief and intuitions don’t take into account a lack of understanding and nuance in the subjects.

In the analysis above, the researchers only have two options: “compatibilism” and “incompatibilism” in terms of free will belief. They don’t have “contradictory beliefs”, which is what their data actually and clearly shows. Indeed, they begrudgingly admit this:

The relation between FW-gen and FW-de can further be assessed through a cross-cultural comparison. If general free will beliefs were closely related to determinism beliefs, we should see a covariation of FW-gen and FW-de scores across cultures. We see a clear difference in FW-de, t(857) = -9.58, p < 0.001, d = 0.63, BF10 > 150, with US disbelieving in determinism and SGP believing in it (Fig 1). According to a libertarian view, we should observe the opposite effect for FW-gen, i.e. lower FW-gen scores in SGP than in the US. Yet, we found strong evidence for the absence of cultural differences in FW-gen, t(887) = -0.48, p = 0.63, d = 0.03, BF10 = 0.08. An additional control analysis demonstrated that these effects cannot be explained by mere differences in average age, sex-ratio, or level of educational between countries (see S6 Analysis). Thus, differences in determinism beliefs across cultures occur in the absence of any differences in general free will beliefs, again demonstrating that FW-gen and FW-de are not negatively related. Overall, this points to some inconsistencies in lay beliefs, as most participants agree to libertarian concepts of free will, yet still free will and determinism are positively related.

All of this and more show that people have conflicting and philosophically problematic views on free will and determinism, probably resulting from confusion over internal causation as an equally determining mechanism as external causation.

This is borne out by Shaun Nichols in his paper “Folk Intuitions on Free Will“:

This paper relies on experimental methods to explore the psychological underpinnings of folk intuitions about free will and responsibility. In different conditions, people give conflicting responses about agency and responsibility. In some contexts, people treat agency as indeterminist; in other contexts, they treat agency as determinist. Furthermore, in some contexts people treat responsibility as incompatible with determinism, and in other contexts people treat responsibility as compatible with determinism. The paper considers possible accounts of the psychological mechanisms that underlie these conflicting responses….

After this description, subjects were asked, “Which of these universes do you think is most like ours?” The vast majority of subjects answered that the indeterminist universe (Universe B) is most like ours. Note that the only feature of the universe that is indeterminist is choice. So, the responses indicate that people are committed precisely to the idea that choice is indeterminist. But it would be premature to conclude that people are consistently indeterminist about choice. For, as we will see, different kinds of questions seem to provoke determinist responses.

Carrier stated to me personally on this point:

Note, too, that my position regarding lay people who mistake consent and autonomy as requiring contracausal powers (which I have discussed several other times on my blog), is that the correct response to their doing that is to explain that free will doesn’t work that way; not to claim free will (which they equate with consent and autonomy) doesn’t exist. That people are confused about what makes living organisms alive (it’s not a “life force”) or how earthquakes happen (it’s not “God’s punishment”) does not warrant denying earthquakes and life exist; it warrants correcting people’s false apperceptions of how these things work. I just want philosophers to start doing that; not confuse people by telling them things don’t exist that do actually exist, but just work differently than they think. That people conflate consent and autonomy with contracausal powers is the problem; not the words we use to signify these things.

Just as Carrier incorrectly states:

So the solution is not to say “free will doesn’t exist,” as that is as fallacious as saying “mammals don’t exist because faeries are mammals and faeries don’t exist.”

Sometimes our theories require that we opt for revision (a point philosopher Gergg Caruso was talking to me about today – as in when it turned out whales were not fish, we did not eliminate the notion) and at other times we eliminate the notion (as with phlogiston and witches). Here, libertarian free will does not exist, but compatibilist free will does. What we define as simply “free will” will depend on arguments like this happening over time until we reach a settled consensus. At the moment, the consensus on what is defined by “free will” appears to be “libertarian free will” but that we are in a period of change, reacting to both science and philosophy.

And this gets back to thinking the point about phlogiston or unicorns vs whales. I personally think, as I have mentioned before, perhaps we should just start using the term “volition” for “free will” since the latter infers a sort of contra-causality in its name. And if this LFW definition is what most people believe of it, and they are wrong, then perhaps we should jettison it because it is a confusing landscape. Perhaps volition, without the loaded “free” attached, is more fit for purpose.

‘Trick Slattery responded to Carrier as follows:

You know who else has this sort of position? Pantheists that define “god” as “the universe” or “everything” rather than an intelligent creator deity….even though most people when they hear the word “god” think of an intelligent creator deity. It is the compatibilist that offers up a confusion with their semantic shift away from the abilities most people feel they and others possess.

I have to say, though, I am pretty sure that in most every one of my articles on free will, I set out my understanding of free will that I argue against as libertarian free will (most often using the terms of LFW explicitly). As I stated in my syllogism piece:

The idea of being able to choose otherwise is also explained as being problematic by a libertarian himself.

It is not like I am equivocating. I am clear in what I am arguing against.

I will leave a section on free will and the law for the next piece.

Free will and Christians

Carrier continues:

Of course, one could also take Pearce to task for an even more basic error here, which is that theism, even Christianity, in no way depends on that illogical notion of free will (as Christian apologists have already pointed out). So you actually can’t disprove it that way; all you can do with such an argument is reform its theology, leaving its purported truth otherwise intact. That’s not a sound way to end up an atheist. It’s also perplexing to see a philosopher argue “If in any meaningful sense I could not have done otherwise, then God punishing me eternally is rendered utterly incoherent,” since “God punishing me eternally” is just as incoherent even if libertarian free will existed. So why does it even matter whether “LFW” existed? The problem is not LFW; it’s irrationally incommensurate punishments. Pearce thus seems obsessed with a complete irrelevancy.

Firstly, no. It’s not up to me to reform the theology. I am an atheist. If I say “Understanding of your God is problematic with your version of free will because that version is broken”, it is not up to me to redefine either of these terms or worldviews. This is patently ridiculous of Carrier, with all due respect, to seem to expect this.

I say that the Christian god does not exist as entailed by the orthodox versions of God not being consistent with such adherents’ notions of free will, since their notions are impossible. One or the other or both should go, and if you change the idea of free will, then you will no doubt change the idea of God. Do with that, Christian, what you will – it certainly changes or invalidates your god. But the burden is certainly not on me to build up a coherent understanding of either for the benefit of the Christian since my job is done in showing that prevalent God beliefs and ~LFW are mutually exclusive ideas.

I set this out enough in my book The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight. The reason “God” is in scare quotes is because everyone has a different idea of what God is, and to attack one version is to perhaps allow the theist to move the God idea around like a pea in the shell game for con artists. So I take the most orthodox and widely accepted version, of classical theism, and attack that. I can’t attack every version of God because there are almost as many version as there are believers, so I look for broad commonalities.

In this way, I attack God through free will. If you then want to construct a god that takes into account causal determinism, then go for it. But it won’t look much like the understood God of the Bible for most Christians.

It is worth surveying the data and metadata from the philpapers survey of 2009 that found that only 14% of philosophers believed in LFW. These 14% also happened to be the same ones who believed in God. The devil is in the detail. Carrier seems to think the whole enterprise I am involved in is pointless, claiming I am the one in the ivory tower; yet it is his position that is held by those in the ivory tower, not laypeople and not Christians or Christian philosophers. We also know that people who believe in the paranormal are more likely to believe in LFW, for example.

Of course, Christians will in some way or another cross the whole spectrum of free will beliefs. But this shouldn’t cause on to give up on criticising one or all of them.

The beginning to The Atlantic article entitled “There’s no such thing as free will” reads:

For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.

Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia states:

The question of free will may now be stated thus. “Given all the conditions requisite for eliciting an act of will except the act itself, does the act necessarily follow?” Or, “Are all my volitions the inevitable outcome of my character and the motives acting on me at the time?” Fatalists, necessarians, determinists say “Yes”. Libertarians, indeterminists or anti-determinists say “No. The mind or soul in deliberate actions is a free cause. Given all the conditions requisite for action, it can either act or abstain from action. It can, and sometimes does, exercise its own causality against the weight of character and present motives….

The entry is itself worth a read as you can sense a wrangle within the mind of the author.

Focus on the Family take the mysterian tack:

How can God’s sovereignty and human free will be true at the same time? We don’t know. But God does. And we can trust that He’ll explain it to us when we see Him face to face.

The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology reads in a number of places in favour of LFW. Alexander Pruss states (p. 55):

Nonetheless, how there can be explanation of exercises of libertarian free will is mysterious. I shall here defend option (a), that a choice of A can be explained in terms of a state that was compatible with choosing B. I shall defend this by offering a hypothesis about how libertarian free will works. If this hypothesis is false, perhaps another can do the same job, but I find this one plausible.

Stewart Goetz, in the same anthology and in his chapter “The Argument from Evil”, states (p. 451)

Just as there cannot be a problem of evil if no one is conscious and experiences pain, so also there cannot be a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil if souls do not exist and survive death. And not only must souls exist, but I will also maintain they must be free in the libertarian sense (have libertarian free will) to make undetermined choices for purposes (reasons).

Although he goes on to admit that the doctrine of secular philosophy is for CFW. Agreed. He continues, in discussing the problem of evil:

…we know that the existence of evil is compatible with persons possessing signifi cant freedom (libertarian free will) and that the possession of this freedom might be God’s justifi cation for permitting evil. The aim of the free will defense, however, is not to say that we know that the possession of this freedom is God’s justifi cation or reason for permitting evil.

The theodicist Jerry Walls has argued that contrary to what Plantinga maintains, the free will defense requires a commitment to the reality of libertarian free will as God’s actual justifi cation for permitting evil, thereby making Plantinga a theodicist. Walls argues that Plantinga is committed to the truth of the principle (call it P) that in all worlds where persons are either not free or have compatibilist free will, God could eliminate all moral evil, where moral evil is the experience of pain and/or deprivation of pleasure that results from morally wrong choices and/or actions of free beings, whether human or nonhuman. In other words, in a world that lacks persons with libertarian free will it is impossible for moral evil to exist. A certain kind of evil requires a certain kind of justifi cation, and any possible world that contains moral evil must also contain beings with libertarian free will. Given that we know there is moral evil in our world, the only possible justifi cation God can have for permitting the existence of this moral evil is the existence of beings with libertarian free will.

Goetz admits that, for Plantinga, LFW isn’t necessary for his theodicy but that he is inclined to think it does the trick (p. 456):

Plantinga concedes the force of this line of thought: while it might be the case that some evil is necessary for the existence of any really good possible world, it is implausible to believe that the horrifi c moral evils of this world are necessary, say, for the proper appreciation of what is good. Thus, he says that he is inclined to think that some principle analogous to P, which makes reference to appalling moral evils, is true. That is, he is inclined to believe that in all worlds in which persons either are not free or are free only in the compatibilist sense, God could and would eliminate all horrendous moral evil. But being inclined to believe that something is true is not the same thing as being committed to its truth. Thus, even with respect to the appalling moral evils of this world, Plantinga maintains that he is not committed to the truth of an analog of P in giving his free will defense. Granted, he fails to see a justifying good other than libertarian free will that God could have for permitting the horrific moral evils we fi nd in our world. He points out, however, that “there is a big difference between failing to see that something is possible and seeing that it is impossible” (Plantinga 1992, p. 338). Therefore, for all he knows, there may be a justification other than libertarian free will that God has for allowing the appalling moral evils in our world.

Christians use, foundationally so, ideas of LFW.

Conclusion

Pearce thus seems obsessed with a complete irrelevancy.

What I have done here, hopefully, is to show that my project is not “irrelevancy” since the vast majority of theists I have dealt with, and many whom I haven’t,  believe in LFW. And, it seems, most of their ivory tower thinkers. But not just theists, general laypeople and intelligent laypeople. And philosophers, even.

And given the complexity of the argument within the legal world, this is even less of an irrelevancy.

The idea of libertarian free will needs putting to bed. What we call free will after that? Well, arguably that’s more of an irrelevancy.


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