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Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism


To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism
Date: 9th June 2008 13:49

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 29 May, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Summarise the argument that free will is impossible, whether on the assumption of determinism or on the assumption of indeterminism. Do you see any loopholes that the defender of free will might exploit?'

I can definitely detect the influence of our previous discussions of this problem. We are in agreement over the main points in the argument, as well as over the suggestion that somehow a Cartesian soul would possess the power to make decisions which were neither 'determined' nor 'not determined'.

Every time I look at this topic -- most often, when one of my students sends me an essay on it -- I find myself rehearsing in my own mind the argument from the dilemma, 'determined/ not determined', trying to see if I can somehow catch myself off guard and think of an alternative which I haven't though of before.

We are not told how the soul is different from any other entity with a 'nature' (physical or non-physical). A physical nature involves processes which take place in 'matter', chemical or electrochemical or whatever. A non-physical nature would involve -- what exactly? Explanation in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions, in other words the terms of folk psychology, may imply causation but as Donald Davidson argues there are no 'laws' of the mental realm comparable to the laws of the physical realm. This is what he terms the 'anomalousness of the mental' (see Davidson's paper 'Mental Events').

The famous example (I can't remember whether I have given this before) is taking an orange from the fridge. An natural explanation would be that I wanted an orange (desire) and I believed that there was an orange in the fridge. However, as Davidson argues, the very same sequence of behavioural events *could* in principle have a different psychological explanation. Because of the 'holism of the mental' there is no way to identify beliefs and desires independently of assumptions about other beliefs and desires, and so on ad indefinitum.

Another, simpler, way of putting is would be to say that beliefs and desires are not 'things in themselves' but rather labels which we use to make sense of a person's behaviour. I'm not laying any heavy metaphysical weight on the notion of a 'thing in itself' here. A table or a chair are things in themselves. So is a brain or a neuron.

Davidson argues in 'Mental Events' that since there are strictly no 'laws' of psychology, the causation implied by such statements as, 'He took an orange from the fridge *because* he wanted one', requires laws at the physical level. That is his argument for the identity of mental and physical 'events'.

Denying mental monism, if Davidson's argument is sound, requires that we give up the idea of mental causation. But in favour of what? That was the question. I still don't have an answer to that, a plausible 'get out' for the Cartesian who wants to talk of psychological explanation without causation (whatever that would mean).

Sorry if this sounds a bit like talking aloud. I haven't come up with any new lead, though I hardly expected to ;-)

I've seen a book with the subtitle 'Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting'. The idea being that given the argument from dilemma, it looks increasingly likely that we don't have a coherent idea of what we want a 'free will' to be. That's how bad it is. It's not as if we could imagine or conceive what 'having a free will' would be like but, 'Sorry, you can't have one.' Rather, we don't even have a coherent idea of what it is that we 'want'. Hence the idea of searching around for something 'worth wanting'.

'I don't know what is worth wanting. I only know that I *am* free,' would be the unphilosophical response. My best shot at this is that has something to do with the clash between the subjective and objective viewpoints -- a point in which I am agreement with Thomas Nagel.

Where I disagree with Nagel is over the metaphysical significance of what Nagel terms the necessary 'penumbra of ignorance' of an agent of the causes of his actions. The way Nagel puts this implies that 'possession' of free will is, ultimately, a matter of ignorance. Whereas, I would want to say that (somehow) the subjective standpoint comes *before* the objective, not after it, and therefore that our freedom as agents is more real than anything else in the 'known' universe.

All the best,