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Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism


To: Tejaswini T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism
Date: 6 December 2007 12:02

Dear Tejaswini,

Thank you for your email of 29 November, with your first essay for Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will ins incompatible with determinism and also incompatible with indeterminism.

This is an intelligent response to the question which sketches a defensible position in the free-will debate. Most of the points I will make are on matters of detail rather than principle.

I like the idea that the problem arises with 'absolutes and limits'. There does seem something right about the idea that we have a concept of 'free choice' which works for practical purposes, and only generates paradoxes when we approach 'too closely to the edge'.

A similar claim could be made about the concept of knowledge, where (it can be argued) the argument for scepticism gains a hold because we neglect the majority of situations where for practical purposes we have a perfectly good notion of when someone 'knows' something and when their belief falls short of knowledge.

However, in the case of free will, one cannot simply say that the notion is unproblematic in practical cases - as the other essay question on free will shows. For example, the Patty Hearst case generated fierce debate over whether the kidnapped heiress was morally responsible for her part in the bank robberies by the 'Symbionnese Liberation Army' in which she took part. There are many similar, if less spectacular cases where courts have to decide between shades of responsibility for a crime, and where it is not at all clear where the line should be drawn.

Your example of the apple and orange nicely illustrates the dilemma between having a motive for choosing and complete indifference, which represents the exclusive options of 'determinism' and 'indeterminism'. However, it is not correct to describe the indeterminist option as one where 'everything is indeterminate and random'. Such a world could hardly exist, or if it did, it could not be described. Rather, the possibility that determinism might not hold is meant to apply locally, in the form of exceptions to the general laws that govern physical reality. If the brain works by harnessing quantum mechanical effects then it is possible that an agent could be in a genuine state of 'indifference' as you describe. But, as you argue, this is not a situation where we would regard the agent as being responsible for his/her decision.

It is true that we can predict, statistically, what choices people will make. The rate of marriages for men aged, e.g. 25 only goes up or down by a small percentage point every year. I am always amazed by the Pathways web statistics which maintain a remarkable constancy, day after day. I know which sites will receive five hundred or a thousand hits in a day, and which sites will only receive around twenty or less. Each page click is a free choice, yet the result is highly predictable nonetheless.

However, as argued in unit 2 with the example of the butterfly effect, there is every reason to believe that individual choices are unpredictable in principle, because every measurement is subject to a margin of error.

Despite this (and this is where determinism 'bites') we have to recognize that in a determinist world the future seems open, 'undecided' until we make our 'decisions', only because of our necessary ignorance. In a determinisit world, our 'decisions' are merely causal consequences of prior states of the universe.

But is it true to say, in ordinary language, that we regard a predictable choice as 'unfree'? Consider this version of an example given by F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies'). You find a fifty dollar bill on the street and hand it in to the Police Station. Your friend remarks, 'I'm surprised you didn't keep the money.' You retort angrily, 'You should have known me better than that!'

In the face of the dilemma argument, philosophers have tried various means of defining a 'compatible' notion of free choice which you allude to. The second dialogue in unit 2 takes this further, attempting to explain the 'rationale' of arguing with someone that they shouldn't have done what they did.

As the discussion shows, the problem here is not just one of 'blurring' but one of principle. It seems plain irrational to get angry or resentful at someone's action, when we know that, given all the prior circumstances, they had to do what they were going to do. Arguments that a concept of free will is useful in deciding who merits punishment or reward are futile if at the end of the day we have to face the conclusion that our thinking about human choice and free will is deeply incoherent, and perhaps necessarily so.

All the best,