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Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism


To: Jeremy C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism
Date: 22 May 2007 11:09

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for your email of 14 May, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that ‘freedom of the will’ is incompatible with determinism and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

There is good work here, despite your complaint about having to compress the essay to 800 words!

We need first to sort out exactly what the compatibilist claims. As you say, Hume was a compatibilist. Hume viewed our belief in the uniformity of nature as a mere hypothesis, and our ability to judge 'causes' and 'effects' as limited by what we have so far been able to observe. A causal statement is true if it holds universally - at all times and places, but such a statement can never be conclusively verified. As for the belief in a 'connection' between cause and effect, that is just bad metaphysics. No such connection has been or ever will be observed.

This might make it look as if what the compatibilist requires is a 'softer' view of causation, but that appearance is misleading. Hume's argument is that our interest in free will extends just as far as the question of what an agent may be held 'responsible' for, and that this trains our focus on actions which arise from due deliberation, not done under external duress etc. etc. If that argument is good, then it applies to the 'hardest' determinist. If I complain about the bad quality of your essay, or praise you for a great piece of work, either way my interest is in you. It is completely irrelevant that, things being the way they are, you had to write, word for word, the essay that you did write.

You mention Van Inwagen's description of compatibilism as a 'wretched subterfuge'. I would have liked to have seen a bit more in defence of that claim. My view would be sympathetic to Van Inwagen, in that compatibilist 'freedom' leaves the perceived problem of free will exactly where it was to start with. You can't define a problem out of existence as the compatibilists seem to want to do.

Indeterminism, as understood in the essay title, is not the view that there are no causes and effects, which would indeed lead to a world 'based on pure chance and randomness'. The situation would be in fact worse, because, as Kant effectively argued, there can be no objective world if we can't identify causal regularities (Strawson in 'The Bounds of Sense' argues that Kant's attempted 'transcendental deduction' of the law of determinism should be understood this way, allowing for the possibility of a moderate degree of indeterminism, very much against Kant's own intentions.)

The problem with the (moderate) indeterminist view was pointed out by Hume: if we attribute any aspect of an agent's decision to indeterminist 'wobble' in the physical world, then to that extent the decision is random and therefore not attributable to the agent's character or the quality of the agent's deliberations.

There is an article by David Wiggins in the Honderich collection 'Essays on Freedom of Action' (Routledge) which questions that argument but Wiggins fails to offer any third alternative. I have yet to see a convincing case.

The closest one comes, as you seem to hold, is in the thought that maybe dualism is true after all, and our decisions do not have a physical causal basis but rather arise autonomously, from our non-physical mind. The problem I have with this is that the only advantage such a supposition has is its obscurity. As Hume observed, our decisions spring from our character and the quality of our decision making. The further one pursues the question, 'Why did you do that?' the more reasons one finds why the agent, being the kind of person that he was had to do what he did. And if not, then praise or blame are irrelevant because the final decision, good or bad, can only have arisen as a result of finely tipping the mental balance one way or another - something which we may 'praise' or 'blame' the agent for, while all the while recognizing that it is ultimately a matter of moral luck how such finely balanced decisions are resolved.

As you can see, it is very difficult to get away from this 'either-or' model. That was the point of the essay. Yet I have a residual sympathy for Wiggins. There is something fishy here. I can't put my finger on it. Perhaps the fishiness is a result of our relying on a 'mechanical' model of human decision making, where our character and the considerations that occur to us, our weighing reasons and deciding are so many 'pushes' and 'pulls' in the decision making machine. But, then, what is the alternative?

All the best,