The Determinist Libertarian


People can’t choose what they desire, but they “choose” what they desire, and should generally be able to do what they “choose.”

That is, people can’t choose to want one thing over another (because what they desire is controlled entirely by their environment and heredity), but it appears to them (illusorily) that they choose the thing that they desire, and they should not generally be constrained from acting on those illusory choices.


35 responses to “The Determinist Libertarian”

  1. I would like a million dollars, please.

    But, if I went into a bank and passed this “desire” to the teller, in the form of a hand-written note, she’d push the Red Button. Not only would I be constrained, but I’d get a free ride downtown, told to take off all of my clothing, and asked if I felt suicidal by someone smacking on their chewing gum that could care less.

    I doubt Mark could claim, in court, that I was just a “Determinist Libertarian” exercising my rights: They’d lock us both up together. 🙂 Ric

    • Actually, that case will be playing out in the local Federal court. (I’m not involved). Newspaper reports are that he presented a note to the teller saying “Give me all your money.” No weapon shown, no threat made. Question: if “Robbery” is taking by force, how can this be robbery? Seems more like inappropriate pan-handling.

  2. I disagree with your premise: “…people can’t choose to want one thing over another (because what they desire is controlled entirely by their environment and heredity).”

    People may choose to alter their environments and thereby change their desires.

    Suppose I decide to enter into a marathon. If I choose to want to win that marathon, I may not “desire” to train for it every day. But I will make choices including preparation, training, diet, etc. When race day comes I will want very much to run faster than everyone else. Through my actions and choices, I will have affected a new desire.

    In my hypothetical, I’ve altered my environment through conscious choice. My altered environment has caused me to have new or different desires.

    So, I believe it is possible for an individual to choose what to desire.

    • You’re free to believe that, even though your belief is supported only by an illusion.

      Imagine the first “choice” you ever made. It was driven entirely by your environment and heredity, neither of which you chose. Every “choice” you made after that was driven entirely by your heredity and your environment (as it was affected by previous “choices”). There is nothing else, and if there were something else, you wouldn’t have chosen it.

      You don’t choose to want to win the marathon. You want to some extent to win, or you don’t. By the same token, you want to train today or you don’t; the more you want to win, the more you want to train (that is, the higher priority training takes) today, and the more likely it is that you will do so. If your unchosen desire to sleep in outweighs your unchosen desire to train, you will “choose” to sleep in.

  3. I was scrolling through my reading list and read your post title as “The Determined Librarian” – and was really wondering where you were going to go with that.

  4. And try telling that to a jury. Determinism (even if the determinism is arbitrary) was never a favorite with we who believe that we are in full control of our actions.

  5. I’m sorry I’m so late in getting to this, I meant to respond to it earlier. The problem with your logic as I see it is that you’re trying to exclude everything from the self, and thus creating a version of the self that, it is true, makes no decisions. That idea of the self as a thing completely isolated from anything else is misleading. To borrow a phrase from Daniel Dennett, if you make yourself small enough you can externalize anything.

    It’s true that your genetic code dictated, to a large degree, how your brain developed. The environment you were born into and lived in also played a role. “You,” in the extremely limited sense, did not design the brain that controls what you do. However, “you” in any useful sense includes that brain. It includes all the parts of you that have been impacted by genetics and environment. Thus, when those factors combine inside of you to create future action, it is you, in the large sense, making the decision to act in that manner.

    This is, really, the only sort of free will worth having. You are making the decisions about how you act, so long as you understand the self to include everything in the body, not some imaginary “core” or “soul.” The only sense in which determinism kills free will is that in the exact same circumstance, you will do exactly the same thing. But “exact same circumstance” includes you being in exactly the same state also. So if one defines free will as “the *exact* same person having the ability to do two different things in the *exact* same situation”, then free will is incompatible with determinism. But why would we want that kind of free will? The freedom to act perfectly randomly? What good is that? That’s not “will” or “choice” in any sense of the word.

    • In my view, free will is incompatibile with determinism. It seems to me that the compatibilist view requires a redefinition of “free will” to mean something other than what we ordinarily mean by “free will,” which is that the exact same person in the exact same circumstances could choose to act in one way or another. (Believers in free will sometimes use everyday examples as “proof” of their free will: “I could have had Wheaties or Corn Flakes for breakfast; I chose one over the other; therefore I have free will.”)

      Every computer program also has “free will” in the sense in which you seem to be using the term—small changes in circumstances may make large differences, but in the exact same circumstance, it will do exactly the same thing.

      Belief in determinism may come into play in punishment decisions. It seems to me that, all else being equal, the person who believes in free will as I use the term is more likely to believe in desert and retribution than the person who recognizes—as you seem to—that if he were the exact same person in the exact same circumstances he could not help but do the exact same thing.

      • Free will, at least in the sense that I see it as valuable, depends on choice. What value is there in free will if it is purely random? It’s true that one could define free will as the ability to make a completely random decision independent of any factors, but my guess is that very few people actually understand free will that way. That definition of free will would make humanity into completely irrational beings, which seems like an odd thing to desire.

        Looking at your example of Wheaties or Corn Flakes (although who *would* choose Wheaties? :)), we can see that that works with my understanding of free will, and I think what most people actually mean when they talk about free will. Looking at the time leading up to the decision, all factors external to the individual allowed either choice: both Wheaties and Corn Flakes were in the cupboard, neither box was empty, etc. The only things that affected the choice was aspects of the person making the decision.

        Of course, people have reasons for the decisions that they make (who would truly celebrate their ability to make decisions without any reasons?) and of course those reasons have many (thousands, millions, billions of) trails of causality leading up to them. But all of those causal lines meet in the individual, and become a part of the individual, before they are used to make a decision.

        It’s also dangerous to look at free will as a binary concept. There are varying levels at which free will can be limited. The first, of course, is physical control. Whether it’s police dragging you away or someone inserting electrodes into your brain to trigger movement, the *direct causes* of your actions are external and that wouldn’t be understood as free will.

        But there’s a middle ground as well. Compulsion, persuasion, etc…all of these words represent times when an external will has a *direct effect* on your choices to a certain degree. Even though the actions of the other person (say, threats) are taken in by the person and used in the decision making process, they do not become a part of the person’s will *because they are so direct*.

        The more direct a causal chain, the less will and choice exists. But where those causes combine with other factors of heredity and history, the more room “we” (properly understood) have to weigh factors and choose between them.

        Your computer program example is a good example of where direct causes have too much impact. As they are now, programs are too simple, too causally direct to be considered to have free will. It’s not unimaginable that one day we will have artificial intelligence with sufficiently complex decision making that ways so many factors (and rarely is subject to simple, direct influences) that it can be said to have free will. There’s no reason why that couldn’t happen. But we’re not there yet.

        When the primary direct causes of a choice are external, we are less free. But when there are no primary, direct causes beyond what has combined to make the individual over the years, the decision is more free.

        • How I will reply to your comment is unpredictable to us, with our limited understanding of the human brain, but was determined when the Universe was created.

          It seems to me that free-will believers would say that possibility and absence of compulsion are necessary to the exercise of free will, but not sufficient. John OConnor, for example, implies below that he believes that humans have the freedom to act perfectly randomly.

          A very simple computer program could be written with two subroutines: one that chose Wheaties or Corn Flakes, based on some input (today’s high temperature, for example); and another that decided, based on the fact that that choice had been made (but not privy to the algorithm), whether the computer running the program had exercised free will.

          We are, in my view, extremely complex versions of the computer running that program. The Wheaties eater thinks he could have chosen Corn Flakes for breakfast, but (despite the availability of Corn Flakes and the lack of compulsion) he couldn’t because to do otherwise would have required different hardware, firmware, software, or inputs.

          You write that “programs are too simple, too causally direct to be considered to have free will”? Is the difference difference between free will and not-free-will simply one of complexity? This suggests to me that your “free will” is what I would call the illusion of free will. That is fine for almost all practical purposes, but not for this one: if every action was determined at the Great Cosmic Break, who deserves what?

          If free will is the illusion of free will, is desert the illusion of desert? And do we, by the same definitional hocus-pocus, deserve whatever we get?

          • “How I will reply to your comment is unpredictable to us, with our limited understanding of the human brain, but was determined when the Universe was created.”

            Ah, here you’re getting close to Laplace’s demon, if I’m remembering correctly. If one fears that determinism will lead to us being able to predict everything, those fears can be allayed by the fact that nothing less complicated than the universe itself (and thus, nothing in the universe) can possibly gather and analyze all of the data necessary to predict the future. with deterministic certainty.

            I can’t speak for people like John who seek the ability to act randomly. That doesn’t seem valuable to me, and it doesn’t even seem like a very good definition of free will. Free, certainly, but random action has no element of “will” behind it.

            Complexity is important to free will. Will becomes more free as actions become less directly related to causes. It is not an illusion of free will, not really. You cannot deny that *you* chose the apple pie over the ice cream. *Your* neurons fired in a certain way that made your hand reach for a specific dessert, based in part upon your genetics and in part upon your past as well as the current sensory inputs flooding into you.

            Free will is a useful concept because it allows us to explain what happens. Were *you* forced to choose the apple pie, or did you choose to? Clearly, you chose to, even though it’s true that that choice had reasons behind it.

            Can we apply moral responsibility to all of the various causes of your desire for the apple pie? Clearly not, any more than we would apply moral responsibility to the person whose casual (subconscious?) kick knocked a pebble off a tall bridge and killed someone. But can we hold some tiny sense of *you* (distinct from your body and brain) responsible? Clearly not either. So we hold *you* responsible in the same sense of *you* that *you* chose to do it.

            Looking at a more serious case: a person who grew up with abuse and was warped from that abuse, who grew up to commit abuse of their own. Is he responsible? Yes, in the sense of *him* that includes the parts of him that were created by that childhood abuse. As a unit, he chose to commit abuse and he should be held responsible for that. However, if it is possible to separate the part of him created by that childhood abuse from the rest of *him* (through psychiatric treatment or some other method), then perhaps it would make sense to only hold that separated aspect of him responsible, and absolve the rest of him.

            There is no reason to think in terms of individuals beyond the fact that individuals, largely, are self-contained systems. Not completely, of course, but it is far more likely for an individual to have continuity in their nature than to change, and it is very difficult to alter that nature. Free will makes sense, with this understanding of individuals, to differentiate between the times when the individual (as a whole) makes a free choice, and when that choice is compelled by things beyond that understanding of the individual.

            At some level, the definitional choices are up to you. You can choose to define free will as the ability to make random choices, so long as you realize that other people will understand it differently. But, when messing around with definitions, it’s careful to imply only what is proper given your definition. If you show that free-will-as-random-action is impossible, then you can run with the implications of that, but it is premature to then say that free will does not exist, and thus all possible implications of all definitions of free will are incompatible with determinism.

          • It seems to me that it’s the compatibilists who are playing games with definitions, defining “free will” to mean something other than the popular conception of it so that it can be compatible with determinism. I say this because a typical free-will retribution argument is this: “if I were him,* I wouldn’t have done that.”

            You say, “clearly, you chose to.” I don’t see that as at all clear. If, as I contend, my “choice” was determined at the moment of the Great Cosmic Break, the choice is illusory. That the factors leading me inevitably to the apple pie are so complex that we may never understand them doesn’t make it any more free than the computer program’s “choice” of Corn Flakes; it just makes it more inscrutable. Complexity and distance from causes don’t make us any more free. They just make us more unpredictable.

            Except in the cases of coercion and impossibility, choices are always compelled by things beyond our understanding. So we punish the person: to deter him, to deter others, to incapacitate and rehabilitate him. But to punish beyond the accomplishment of those penological goals the person whose actions were the inevitable result of a billion years of colliding subatomic particles offends my sense of justice.

            * Retributionists aren’t big on grammar.

          • “If I were him, I wouldn’t have done that.”

            Ah, but you see, that actually fits well with my understanding of free will. When people make that statement, they aren’t really saying “if my brain were exactly the same as his, and if my body were exactly the same as his” etc. What they’re saying is “if I was in that situation, I wouldn’t have done that.”

            If you take such statements as implying actual complete equality, then it changes from “Person A as Person B” to just “Person B”. Perhaps there are some people who think that if they quite literally *were identical* to another person they would do something differently, but I doubt those people predominate. My guess (with no statistical support, of course ;)) is that people mean it more in the sense of “if I, a good person, were put in a situation like that I would do something very different.”

            I think where we have our primary disagreement is in our understanding of choices. You seem to think that a “choice” is something that has no cause: a seminal event. I, however, see choices as the balancing of various inputs by an intelligence to arrive at a decision. Under your definition, they are (by definition) impossible in a deterministic world. Under my understanding, though (which I think preserves all of the commonly understood elements of choice) choices are possible even with determinism.

            “But to punish beyond the accomplishment of those penological goals the person whose actions were the inevitable result of a billion years of colliding subatomic particles offends my sense of justice.”

            If you view the decision to punish as also “the inevitable result of a billion years of colliding subatomic particles,” why do you object to it? It is just as inevitable as the thing the punishment is addressing.

            I would agree with you that punishment beyond those penological goals is an offense to justice. But I don’t see how that’s related to determinism.

          • I think that “if my brain were exactly the same as his, and if my body were exactly the same as his” is exactly what the retributionists are saying. As evidence, I offer their response to any argument about any factor leading to criminal conduct: “lots of people who grow up abused / brain damaged / neglected / whatever” don’t go on to commit crimes. Which is true, as far as it goes, but which reveals an attitude that good people can overcome all genetic and environmental deficits.

            That all behavior was inevitable does not mean that all behavior is desirable.

            It seems to me that people who don’t believe in determinism are more likely to feel that retribution is a valid goal of punishment, because if we have free will (as I use the term, and as I contend the general public uses the term) then bad actions deserve more than social engineering.

    • A Piano key does not have free will. No matter how many times you strike the piano key it will product the same result. A piano key does not have the freedom to act perfectly randomly. Are you a piano key?

      • There are an infinite number of ways to strike a piano key, each producing a different result than the others; the result also depends on a near infinite number of other variables (temperature, humidity, shrinkage or expansion of wood, wire, felt, ivory, and so on), each of which has an infinite range.

        Yes, I am a piano key. What might appear (even to me) to be randomness is in fact the outcome of the most complex thing in the universe (the human brain) acting on an near-infinitude of infinitely variable factors.

        (Do you disagree with Andrew that the freedom to act perfectly randomly is not “will” or “choice” in any sense of the word?)

        • I disagree that there are an infinite number of ways to strike a piano key. I agree that a random action has nothing to do with will or choice. Nevertheless, there is a difference between a random action and an arbitrary action.

          Andrew asks “What value is there in free will if it is purely random?” A better question is what value is there in free will if it is purely arbitrary? Dostoyevsky argues that it is this arbitrary exercise of free will that defines our individuality and our personality. See Notes From the Underground. It is this arbitrary exercise of free will that separates the human being from the piano key.

          Finally Andrew states “That definition of free will would make humanity into completely irrational beings, which seems like an odd thing to desire.” I would reply to Andrew that we only have to look at the history of humanity to see that we are irrational beings. Dostoyevsky explains why humans are irrational; it is the price we have to pay if we want to call ourselves a human being and not a piano key. See Notes From the Underground.

          • Disagree all you want about the piano; it’s so fundamental that the very name of the instrument reflects the variability of the result of striking a key.

            It is self-awareness and complexity that separate the human being from the piano key.

            Unfathomable is not necessarily irrational. That we don’t have the tools to make sense of the human brain doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have some sort of sense.

          • John, you claim that there is a large distinction between randomness and arbitrariness. It’s not particularly relevant to this discussion, but out of curiosity: what is that difference? If a decision is arbitrary (has no rationale or reason) isn’t it random?

            As to rationality: of course, humans are not completely rational. But we’re not completely irrational, either. And if your version of free will is one that celebrates irrationality, it is not a version of free will that I am upset to lose with determinism.

            Without having read the author you reference, I disagree with (at least your restatement of) his conclusion. Humans are different from piano keys not because of some (possible, but unlikely) capacity to be arbitrary. We are different from piano keys because of our ability to internalize our past, learn from it, and make decisions based on it.

            As a side note, if you like arbitrary decision making and see it as free will, you might find comfort in quantum indeterminacy theories of free will.

          • It’s interesting to me that there are versions of free will that you would be upset to lose, and that that has a place in this discussion. That you want a proposition to be true does not affect its truth.

            Generally, I believe, successful people want to believe in the illusion, because they can feel better about themselves if they deserve their success than if everything is a cosmic accident.

          • Decisions, by definition, cannot be random. Decision making can be regarded as the mental processes (cognitive process) resulting in the selection of a course of action among several alternatives. See Wikipedia. When a random event occurs there is no prior cognitive process involved. The event just happens. When an arbitrary decision is made there is a cognitive process involved. In administrative law decisions of administravtive agenices can be overturned if they are found to be arbitrary.

          • John: The distinction you’re drawing between “arbitrary” and “random” seems to be more a distinction between “full randomness” and “restricted randomness.”

            Fully random action would be extremely strange: instead of choosing either Corn Flakes or Wheaties, you stab the wall with a fork instead. Or you pick up the phone. Or spit in the sink. So, yes, those actions would be random but not arbitrary.

            But the system of arbitrary decision making that you describe still involves randomness. In effect, it involves a cognitive process (presumably controlled by determinism) to arrive at a list of possibilities, between which a choice is made for absolutely no reason. There is no reason to prefer one choice over another, because if there was the decision would not be arbitrary.

            What separates that decision from a random one? Only that it’s restricted. It’s still a random choice, just between a limited list of possibilities. Instead of asking for a random number, you’re asking for a random number between 0 and 5. Or between 12 and 91. Or whatever. But it’s still random.

  6. I’m gonna switch down to a new thread since the one up above is getting painfully thin. 🙂

    Mark, you said: “As evidence, I offer their response to any argument about any factor leading to criminal conduct: “lots of people who grow up abused / brain damaged / neglected / whatever” don’t go on to commit crimes. Which is true, as far as it goes, but which reveals an attitude that good people can overcome all genetic and environmental deficits.”

    Again, I disagree with you about what that statement means. I don’t think it’s meant to imply that people can overcome “all genetic and environmental deficits,” just that none of those deficits can be solely responsible for an action. And that makes sense: abuse alone can’t justify criminal action if abuse doesn’t always lead to criminal actions.

    However, at a certain level, this aspect of our disagreement is pointless. We agree that the random/arbitrary choice type of free will is incompatible with determinism (though determinism is, of course, not necessarily true), and I think we agree that my version of choice is consistent with determinism. We’re just disagreeing about whether or not that’s free will. And debating about what other people mean by free will, while relevant to a solid definition of free will, isn’t going to get far with just us contributing, since we have only anecdotal evidence to put forward.

    “It seems to me that people who don’t believe in determinism are more likely to feel that retribution is a valid goal of punishment, because if we have free will (as I use the term, and as I contend the general public uses the term) then bad actions deserve more than social engineering.”

    Perhaps. I would disagree with retributionary punishment with or without the existence of free will, but you may be correct that understandings of free will lead to more retribution-as-punishment. I doubt it, because retribution is an emotional (and evolutionarily reasonable) reaction, not one generally based on philosophical considerations of free will and responsibility. But yeah, I guess it’s possible that a certain understanding of free will contributes to the desire for retribution. But, of course, the effect that understandings of free will have on desires for retribution are irrelevant to whether or not those understandings are correct.

    “It’s interesting to me that there are versions of free will that you would be upset to lose, and that that has a place in this discussion. That you want a proposition to be true does not affect its truth.”

    Obviously, that’s true. However, whether an understanding of free will produces an object that would be valuable or desirable is a useful question to ask. As it is, “free will” is understood as a positive thing, while the lack of “free will” is understood as a negative thing. If we’re trying to create a more rigorous understanding of free will, then it makes sense to focus on what about “free will” we see as valuable, and recenter our understanding of it around that.

    My contention is that my understanding of free will captures everything valuable or essential about other understandings of the concept. What follows is that the understandings of free will that you are attacking are not essential to those valuable components. Thus, you are correct that certain understandings of free will are not possible in a deterministic world….but so what? If those understandings of free will do not provide anything we find valuable, why should it matter that they are incompatible with your determinism?

    In other words, my talk about “valuable” forms of free will is kind of a FRCP 12(b)(6) motion. You’re making a claim that, in effect, says nothing because it invalidates something that I (and I suspect) many people don’t really care about when you get down to it.

    • Rather than “anecdote,” I have a sense of what people mean by “free will,” developed by having conversations about the topic many times over the last 15 years. People unschooled in philosophy don’t think as compatibilist determinists. If they believe in free will, they think that at the moment of choosing they, viewed from any frame of reference, could have chosen the Corn Flakes.

      I’ve had the discussion; it’s not just any one factor, but any combination of factors one would care to name that they contend is not sufficient to cause bad conduct. And while that is true, as far as it goes, that it is used as an argument for free will (and therefore retribution) suggests a failure to recognize that free will means what you claim it means. Because if they thought of free will that way, they wouldn’t be fighting over whether our choices are ultimately caused by things beyond our control; instead they would be agreeing that they are but calling that “free will.”

      It appears that these people find something of value in this thought, this understanding of free will, that is threatened by the notion of determinism.

      You’re free, of course (in this frame of reference, at least) to develop your own data.

      • “Having conversations about the topic many times over the last 15 years” is actually a very good example of anecdotal evidence.

        My own sense of public opinion about free will runs somewhat counter to yours, but not entirely so. Of course, people who haven’t considered this from a philosophical perspective don’t have philosophically rigorous views about it. However, what they say about free will shows that their opinions about it are compatible with determinism.

        In the Corn Flakes or Wheaties situation, no one I have heard address that question claims that if they were the exact same, then either result is equally possible. They instead claim that they could have chosen either for breakfast, and the choice was entirely internal. That view is preserved in my understanding of free will.

        As to the retribution argument. First, I suspect that this is somewhat related to the different demographics we’ve spoken with, but I also suspect that it has to do with the way you’ve raised the question. If you put it in terms of the morality of retribution, then people who are emotionally inclined to seek retribution are put on the defensive. The reasons they give, then, for opposing your examples might not reflect accurately on their stance on free will, but instead on what they think it is necessary to claim in order to support their desire to punish.

        Also, in my experience talking about the causes of criminal behavior with people (and this actually doesn’t sound incompatible with your experience, as you’ve described it) people deny the ability of any list of finite factors to cause bad actions. They claim that there are always other things that affect it too. They do not, however, deny that those factors *influence* an individual’s proclivity to crime. And this, also, fits with my understanding of free will. They deny the ability of certain factors to directly cause certain actions, because such direct causation would, in fact, deny free will as I understand it. People in this discussion point to the fact that the human brain can come to different conclusions in situations that are *as similar as we can possibly see*, and that is the essence of the deterministic understanding of free will. Decisions are made internally, influenced by a literally countless number of current and historical stimuli as well as genetics. From this viewpoint, it makes a lot of sense to deny the direct causal links that you mention.

        So, more importantly, what *do* people find of value in their understandings of free will? Because even if the general view of free will needs refinement based on philosophical understandings, if that refinement has no critical impact on the original understanding than there is no “big deal,” so to speak.

        You’ve come to the root of the value that people see in free will a few times: it justifies moral responsibility (through an acknowledgment of agency), both for bad acts and successes.

        The random-action view of free will that you’ve been arguing against does not justify agency and moral responsibility, because the choice is not a true choice at all, but a random, non-deterministic event. Since nothing controls that random choice, there can be no agent and thus no moral responsibility.

        However, the free will of the “large” self, if you will, does provide for agency as well as moral responsibility. It groups an infinitely (or at least close to infinitely) large set of very, very long causal chains into the thing we identify as the “self”. This “self” (or, if you prefer, very large set of very long causal chains) is a morally responsible agent, because it chooses to do things. Unlike a piano key, where the moral responsibility for creating noise is directly shifted upwards to whatever struck the key, human “selves” regularly and consistently make decisions based primarily on internal factors, thus establishing them as morally responsible agents.

        Perhaps many people arrive at justifications for moral responsibility from a slightly skewed path, but that isn’t surprising when people haven’t actually considered an issue philosophically. But, so long as that path is similar to the correct one and ends in the same place (moral responsibility and agency) there is little reason to rejoice in proving that the old path is slightly skewed. It ends up proving little, since the result remains the same.

        • Well, if you want to call that anecdotal then all definition in English is anecdotal; right now I’m looking at my 20-volume Oxford Book of Anecdotes. That’s how we know what terms mean: by observing how people use them.

          The vast majority of people didn’t take PHIL 201. Your definition is based on a definition of free will that I don’t think you can sell even to John OConnor.

          Your distinction between the piano key (which is directly struck by something beyond its control) and the human brain (which is struck by a multitude of things beyond its control) is sophistical; your statements about choice and moral responsibility, tautological; and your logic, fallacious. You would—for example—hold “a very large set of long causal chains” to be a morally responsible agent?

          More complexity doesn’t change “not free will” to “free will.” It just changes “not illusion” to “illusion.”

          I’m not arguing only against a random-action view of free will, but against any view that doesn’t acknowledge that all actions are ultimately caused by factors beyond our choosing or control.

          Agency is not the same thing as free will, and does not necessarily confer moral responsibility. When everything we do and say was determined at the moment of creation, holding someone morally responsible for his actions is holding him morally responsible for things beyond his control.

          Would you care to argue that that’s fair?

  7. Your evidence is anecdotal not because it’s derived from observing how people use the term, but because it’s derived from a very small sample of how people use the term, and there’s no reason to suspect that that sample is representative of the larger population.

    Obviously, most people don’t have a strong backing in philosophy. I’m not claiming that the average person has a rigorous definition of free will in mind; but, of course, that means they also don’t have the definition that determinism can attack specifically in mind, either. Most people have a general sense of what free will is, and if that general sense fits with a definition of free will that is possible in a deterministic world then determinism cannot be said to preclude free will, even if that general sense also fits with a definition that is impossible in a deterministic world. In other words, if people would agree with both your understanding of free will and mine, then you cannot say that free will is impossible with determinism.

    “You would—for example—hold “a very large set of long causal chains” to be a morally responsible agent?
    More complexity doesn’t change “not free will” to “free will.” It just changes “not illusion” to “illusion.””

    The fallacy in your reasoning is that you are looking for a sharp break, a dividing line, if you will, when none is necessary. An increasingly complex system of decision making and conflation of different causes into one result can, in fact, reach the point at which we call it free will, just as an increasingly complex organization of atoms can reach the point where we call it life, or an increasingly complex organization of cells reach the point at which we call them sentient. It’s the same way that increasing specialization can produce two different species from the same ancestor, even though it is impossible to pinpoint a single point along the genetic track where they became separate species. There’s no reason to think that free will must be composed of a completely different “thing” than something lacking free will: it is enough to say that free will is incredibly more complex.

    “I’m not arguing only against a random-action view of free will, but against any view that doesn’t acknowledge that all actions are ultimately caused by factors beyond our choosing or control.”

    Then you haven’t made the necessary link between ultimate causality and a lack of free will. Free will and causality are not mutually exclusive: to suppose they are begs the question. I am not arguing against deterministic causality, I am saying that even then, free will can exist.

    “When everything we do and say was determined at the moment of creation, holding someone morally responsible for his actions is holding him morally responsible for things beyond his control.”

    The error in this line of reasoning is that you are excluding the “things beyond his control” from your understanding of the self. All those lines of causality are subsumed into the identity of the self, so the actions are not determined by something distinct from the self, they are controlled by the individual. It’s just that that individual includes all of those causal trains.

    If a neuron hit an electron three trillion years ago which created a train of causality which somehow affected one of your genes today, than that collision, and everything that happened in between then and now, is a part of you through that gene. With a proper understanding of the self, you cannot externalize that collision.

    • I think it’s pretty clear that you and I are not speaking the same language, and maybe never will: you’re using normative terms like “proper understanding of the self,” “too much impact,” “too causally direct to be considered to have free will” as though, and I don’t believe the answers are clear enough to admit of such judgments.

      I have observed more “anecdotal” uses of the term “free will” in the way in which I use it than the editors of the OED needed to choose a prime definition for any word. If I had ever heard anyone unpolluted by formal philosophy argue for compatibilism, I would have noticed. So I’m comfortable that my definition would go first in the dictionary as the most widely-used sense.

      Sure, there are people who don’t agree with the OED’s first choice for many words. Fine.

      Yes, I think that free will either exists or does not, just as something either is or is not alive, and is or is not sentient. Adding more atoms doesn’t create life, adding cells doesn’t create sentience, and adding causes doesn’t create free will. There’s no magic in big numbers. Adding complexity just obscures the causes.

      You don’t agree, but your disagreement doesn’t render my metaphysics fallacious.

      Fallacy would be saying that one is morally responsible for the inevitable results of the long-ago collision of subatomic particles because that collision is a part of him.

      And with that, I shall exercise droit de bloggeur and declare this topic, in this venue, exhausted.

      Further discussion will require the philosopher’s traditional sustenance of fermented beverages in pint glasses. I’ll bring the professional philosopher, and you’ll buy the first round.

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