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Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism


To: Diane F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism
Date: 14 December 2007 13:42

Dear Diane,

Thank you for your email of 6 December, 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 with indeterminism.'

This is a good essay. You are right, however, in what you say in your email that you have not 'covered all the bases'. You have examined the claim that free will is incompatible with determinism, while ignoring the claim that free will is incompatible with indeterminism.

As quite a few of my students have had difficulty with this point, let me explain it briefly. Indeterminism is not the view that there are no causes or effects -- which would lead to pure chaos, and indeed a 'universe' which could not even be described because anything can happen at any time. Rather, the idea is that while by and large things proceed by cause and effect, there are exceptions, events which occur without any prior cause.

An example of such an event might be a radioactive element emitting a particle which makes a click on a Geiger counter. Although we can reliably predict the number of clicks per minute, according to the science of quantum mechanics there is nothing whatsoever that 'causes' the element to emit a particle precisely when it does.

Some upholders of free will have hypothesised that the brain harnesses quantum-mechanical effects, from which it follows that when we make a finely balanced decision, what prompts us to go for A rather than B might be an uncaused event in our brain.

The problem with this, from the point of view of seeking to defend free will, is that this isn't the kind of 'freedom' that we want -- the freedom to be a roulette wheel. You can't hold someone responsible for an action which they did simply because of a random event which occurred in their brain!

I like the way, in your essay, that you distinguish between predictability, and what you call the 'a priori state of future events'. Even if (as argued in unit 2) there are principled reasons why it is impossible to predict the future with perfect accuracy, the mere fact that we believe in determinism commits us to the view that the future is 'fixed' and there is no way out of this metaphysical fact.

This is similar to fatalism, as you will discover when you come to unit 9. The difference is that the fatalist believes in a fixed 'a priori state of future events' purely on the basis of an understanding of the notion of truth: What will be, will be. For the fatalist, even if determinism is false, it remains the case that what will be will be. You can picture this by imagining a God who has created a universe where determinism does not hold, yet who knows everything that is going to happen in the future.

Your example of saying to someone, 'I know you would do that' is significant, because it can be used as a way to show that far from restricting human freedom, the possibility of prediction can be fully consistent with what we conceive to be 'free choice'. (I hand the bank note that I found in the street to the police and a friend remarks, 'I'm surprised you did that!' and I angrily respond, 'You should have known me better!')

You say a lot in your essay about death. This is a good example to illustrate the point made in the story of the black box, where the knowledge of a prediction made about you gives you a motive for falsifying the prediction. If the black box tells you, 'You will be run over by a lorry tomorrow,' then it must also know that you will be run over despite your every effort to falsify the prediction. E.g. the black box 'knows' that you will stay indoors as a result of hearing the prediction, but that there will be a fire which forces you to run out of you house straight into the path of a lorry.

However, this example makes the idea that anyone can know the precise time and manner of our death very problematic. In each case, there would have to be contrived circumstances whereby the prediction was borne out despite every effort to falsify it.

What kind of freedom do we have, if we accept that determinism might be true?

You cite Sartre, who is an example of a philosopher who is prepared to go right out on a limb and assert that determinism can't be true because we know that we are free. You can guess my difficulty with this theory: the only alternative seems to be 'indeterminism' which doesn't give me freedom either.

However, I think that Sartre's view of freedom can be adapted to determinism. There are persons who choose freedom and those who choose unfreedom; those who act in 'good faith' and those who act in 'bad faith'. There is a certain attitude of mind, which each person 'chooses' for themself, which is, in a very deep sense the 'choice of freedom' or the 'choice of unfreedom'. From this perspective, it is irrelevant what a priori view you might have of the universe because as agents we are, as you say, necessarily restricted in our viewpoint. The viewpoint of the agent, not the God's-eye view or the 'view from nowhere', is the viewpoint that ultimately matters.

All the best,