Problems with Libertarian Freedom

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This is the forty-third post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I presented the reasons why someone might be an incompatibilist about freedom and determinism and why someone might be attracted therefore to a libertarian account of free will. In this post, I'll present some problems with libertarian views of freedom.

Libertarians consider determinism the end of the road when it comes to human freedom. If determinism is true, we simply aren't free. So they deny determinism. But does that mean we are free? It doesn't automatically follow from the denial of determinism that anyone actually is free. Just as the compatibilist will have to explain what compatibilist freedom is, why it should count as genuine freedom, and how we can have it if determinism is true, so the libertarian will need an account of freedom that shows how we can have it if indeterminism is true and why it should count as genuine freedom. Libertarians have generally thought that this is much easier than what compatibilists have to overcome given the main incompatibilist argument in the last post. But the problems presented against libertarian views of freedom are not surface-level criticisms. There are deep worries about how freedom of the sort the libertarian thinks we have could arise in the kind of world libertarians think we live in.

The problem arises in its first form in debates among the ancient Greek philosophers. Epicurus was the first philosopher we know of to endorse what we now call a libertarian view in a clear, explicit way. (Some think Aristotle might have been a libertarian, but the evidence there is at least somewhat ambiguous. He didn't formulate a view in this sort of way, at least.) One problem Epicurus faced from his contemporaries was that he was also a materialist and an atomist, believing that everything is made up of indivisible atoms, bouncing around and hitting into each other. Everything we see ultimately is derived from different combinations of atoms. How does free will fit into this? According to his follower Lucretius, Epicurus had an explanation of how freedom appears within such a seemingly-deterministic system. Atoms occasionally swerve. This swerving is not caused by anything prior to my action, so it explains how my action is not determined. So determinism is false, and my choices can be free if they are caused by these swerving atoms.

Lucretius took this explanation to be good enough, but the ancient Skeptics and Stoics found it insufficient. If the atom swerves randomly, meaning that nothing caused it to swerve, then I am just as much out of the loop as I was with the determinist’s story. If nothing caused it to swerve, then its swerving is not under my control, so I still have no choice about what I do as a result. This account of freedom just won’t do. It seems as if denying determinism isn’t enough to show that we’re free. We might not be free even if determinism is false, because our actions could be caused by random events that still aren't under our control.

So libertarians want an account of how I can be free in an indeterministic universe. It can’t be that I am caused by some uncaused, random event. That’s as bad as determinism. I need to be the cause of what I am doing. Since the time of the Epicureans, libertarians have generally responded to this problem with a view that is called agent causation. As far as I've been able to tell, the first person to suggest this was Alexander of Aphrodisias, a follower of Aristotle from Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the late second to third century. Alexander saw the problem in Epicurus' account of freedom based on swerving atoms and concluded that freedom must not be caused by something outside of us at all. Whether it is caused by predetermined events or random events, it is still caused by something outside our control. To be truly free, our choices must be caused within us.

But Alexander couldn't say that our choices are caused within us in the way that the Stoics, who were compatibilists and determinists, thought. They saw our choices as resulting from prior events within us, which eventually do trace back to events outside our control. An incompatibilist couldn't accept such a thing. So Alexander suggested that the cause of our actions is not some event within us, which could be the sort of thing that in turn had been caused by some earlier event. He had to avoid that possibility completely. His solution was to distinguish between two kinds of causes. 

Most philosophers think of causes as events. An event, i.e. something that occurs, causes another event. That’s what causation is all about. Examples of events would be football games, elections, the Great Depression, World War II, brain events, hand-wavings, class lectures, concerts, the first ten years of my life, my mouse’s clicking on the file to open it, etc. The firing of neurons in my brain could cause my hand to rise. This is called event causation. But what if I cause some event to take place that leads to my action? This is called agent causation. It’s not that some event causes me to do this. I, an agent (using the classic sense of the term as someone who acts), cause some decision to happen, and that leads me to do the action. Then I’m free, since I caused it. If this view is correct, something can cause events without itself being an event. I cause the action, but nothing within me causes it.

So my action isn't caused by predetermined events or by random events, both of which would be outside my control on an incompatibilist view. Instead, my action is caused by me. What could be a better thing to say if we want to account for my being the one responsible for my action? So far so good. But view does seem rather mysterious. In a physical world, what is the ‘I’ that causes this? Dualism (which I’ll cover in the next unit of these notes) would explain what I am – an immaterial soul, causing something in the physical world. Given materialism (that nothing but the physical world exists), what am I that is causing this event?

For that reason, many materialists think they must deny this view to be materialists. But the issue is actually completely independent of whether we are merely physical beings or whether we have immaterial minds or souls. After all, even if I am just an immaterial soul, there can be events within my mind that cause me to do things. A dualist could be a determinist (and as we'll see in the next section, G.W. Leibniz formulated a very interesting version of dualism that requires determinism or something very much like it). Furthermore, dualism allows for events within your mind to cause you to do things. The issue of whether you are just a collection of events causing further events or whether you are some agent who causes things in addition to what the events within you cause is still an issue for dualists. Dualism adds nothing to the issue that should make a libertarian happier to be a dualist than a materialist. The issues are just completely separate.

As it turns out, Peter van Inwagen is both a libertarian and a materialist (at least about the human mind – he doesn’t think God is a physical being, but he thinks we are). So he doesn’t want to say we have non-physical minds. But he isn't happy with agent causation as an account of human freedom, and his reasons have nothing to do with materialism. John Locke pushed something like this sort of argument, but it was much more carefully formulated in the work of Jonathan Edwards and David Hume.

If I am the cause of my decision, then there’s a particular event I can pick out – my causing my decision. That seems to be a genuine event. Is that event caused or uncaused? If it’s uncaused, then I am not in control, so it better be caused. But it better not be caused by something outside my control. So it must have been caused by some previous event that was also under my control. Then we have another event, and we can ask about that one as well. That one must also have been caused by some other event under my control. If you keep going, you either get an infinite regress, with this infinite past set of events all within my control, or else at some point something outside my control enters in. The first seems absurd – that any one choice I make requires an infinite past series of events all under my control. The second is bad for libertarianism – something outside my control caused what I do. Only a compatibilist could say that.

I do see one possible way out for someone endorsing agent causation. Do we have to admit that the event of my decision must have been caused by some previous event? That’s not what the agency theorist should say. The agency theorist should say that the event of my decision was caused by me. Then what about the event of its being caused by me? That’s just not a legitimate event. This may be the best way an agency theorist would handle this objection. You can put words to describe that as an event, but it's not an event, and so there's no meaningful question to be asked about whether it is caused or what caused it. It's difficult to see why this might be independently plausible, because it sure sounds like an event, but such an ad hoc move might at least allow the libertarian view to be internally consistent.

Peter van Inwagen is one libertarian who is unconvinced. In the end, he leaves freedom as a mystery, but he says compatibilists and those who deny free will also have mysteries to deal with that are worse. His mystery is better than denying the incompatibilist argument from the last post (as compatibilists have to do) or denying that we are free (as hard determinists do), so he’ll live with this lesser mystery. The question is ultimatelty whether the mystery he's chosen to adopt is worse than the mystey of one of the other views. Compatibilists disagree with him on this, and I'll turn to that in the next post.

17 Comments

Hmmm. Couldn't the whole idea of the soul fix it? You mentioned that earlier. Surely we are affected by our genes and environment, but ultimately, we make the decision. We "will" it. That thing we call consciousness (the soul, not the spirit, though drawing strength from the spirit) would be what we "will" with. We decided too. Why? Because we did. We have reasons, and logic, and those affect the outcome. They put more weight on the scale of our thought, but it is us, who decides who wins eventually.

I'm not sure how the soul would be anything different from some physical object if what I am is a physical object. If I'm a physical body, then I will it rather than any event within the body. If I'm a brain, then I will it rather than any event within the brain. I'm I'm a mind, then I will it rather than any event within the mind. Don't these cases all seem parallel?

The difficulty with just events causing each other is that there doesn't seem much room left for me to be causing anything. But that's true even if dualism is true. If I'm a succession of mental events, you can still ask where I am in the whole process. One thing that it seems I cannot be is just a succession of events (despite the dissertation of a good friend of mine arguing that that's exactly what I am). But I can be something other than a set of events, whether I'm an immaterial mind, a physical body, a brain, an organism with both physical and non-physical parts (or properties), and so on. Whatever I am is the agent who causes things, according to agent causation. I just don't see how being physical or non-physical makes a difference to this issue.

If it's only reasons and logic that make the difference, then I think you should be happy enough with compatibilism. Thomas Aquinas' particular brand of compatibilism defines freedom in those terms and then explains how you can have that even if you're fully predetermined by God. You can be predetermined to engage in a process of considering options and then choosing one based on its being the one that seems best to you. That's one of the compatibilist views I'm going to discuss, probably in the next post (although I'm not sure yet how much I'll be able to get to in each post on compatibilism).

Hmmm. But the soul is immaterial and therefore not subject to natural laws. After all, if we say the soul must have something to cause it, then we may run into the same problem with God. What causes God? Nothing. He is the uncaused cause. What causes his decisions? Nothing, he merely wills things. And our souls/counsciousness, draws its power from our spirit. Our spirit is the thing that makes us "in God's image", and therefore it would make sense, that we would share those things with God. God has the ablitity to choose, and has, by giving us spirit, has also given us that ability. The ability to will, with out something causing it. And think of this. C.S. Lewis's arguement against strict naturalism, was that it was self contradictory, because strict naturalism would lead to a belief that all action is the result of previous natural laws. If this is true, if all actions and thoughts are built upon irrational events, then logic does not hold water, because everyone's trains of logic are merely based upon irrational events (genetics, environment, outside forces) C.S. Lewis confesses that it he is being a bit of a "mystic" in believing that the rules of logic are above the effects of natural laws, but that is better than being insane. The things that make humans, human, are the things that are specifically god-like. Things like logic, free will, love, virtue etc, etc.

I'm not sure why the soul wouldn't be subject to natural laws. One reason philosophers speak of natural laws in this context is to make it clear that we're dealing with something broader than just physical laws, which don't seem to be able to apply directly to anything non-physical. If the mind and body interact then there must be some more general laws to explain how they interact.

In fact, some determinists (e.g. Leibniz) have appealed to the idea of certain natural laws just for the non-physical domain. So even if there is no interaction between mind and body (as Leibniz proposed), there would need to be laws in both realms that correspond to each other to ensure that when I try to move my arm it will in fact move.

You can account for God's actions with agent causation, sure, but you shouldn't need agent causation. If God as atemporal (as I think), then God's actions are really just one atemporal event, having its effect throughout time. That's still event causation. It's just God's one act that serves as the event cause of everything else. I'm not sure if it makes sense even to ask if an atemporal being's actions are caused. The key is really whether they have an explanation, and the explanation would lie within God's character. So I don't think you need agent causation to explain God's actions.

With a temporal God, I think it would be similar. At any moment God chooses something, it would be caused by God's character, desires, intellect, or something else that compatibilists would accept as a basis for free. You don't need agent causation to explain divine action if compatibilism is correct. If you're already committed to libertarianism, none of this will be tolerable, but that of course is the very thing that's at issue here. I'm giving an argument against agent causation that has led many philosophers, including some libertarians, to be dissatisfied with it as an account of freedom. The objection that it means God can't act just doesn't seem to me to be correct.

I think it's pretty clear from the Genesis context of the divine image that it doesn't necessarily involve any ontological statement about what humans have in common with God. In context, it's almost certainly got to do with being God's representative on earth to steward the rest of God's creation. Like an image, we represent God. Now it's clear that representing God requires certain capacities that humans have that lions, protozoa, and cacti don't have, but I don't think it needs to follow that our choices are made in a way similar to God's. In fact I would assume that the whole knowledge of good and evil bit means that the first humans didn't have some of the capacities we now have with respect to making moral choices. It's actually sin that made them become more like God, just as the serpent had said. But it's not clear what way of being more like God that involves. It may be just literally knowing some more bits of information, but I think it involves some kind of capacity as well.

Lewis' argument is attacking the view that all action is the result of natural laws resulting from unthinking and unintended events. But if an intelligent being initiated all things from purposes and intentions based on a moral character, none of what he argued follows. Logic, free will, love, virtue, and so on still serve as the foundation of all that God does, and therefore all of creation's natural laws are founded on them, and God gave us moral characters of a sort that act based on natural laws to do further things that count as being based on logic (whether well-reasoned or not), free will, love (or its absence or contraries), virtue (or its absence or contraries), and so on.

I see, but that means that you would have to believe in God first. So an atheistic determinist would not have the refuge of predestination. But for a Christian... I am going to discuss, not necessarily "debate" so don't get mad if I come off argumentative. I am just mulling this over. Your point about atemporality with God is a good point, but it also applies to angels no? They too are outside time, but they are not uncaused causes.
Also about my point about the spirit. The soul, would be something that would function as an interface you could say between body and spirit. Spirit being the spirtual piece of humanity. The soul would just be the interface, the connection between the two. It would be maybe called "mind". Well my question is, why humans, due to their spirit be able to just "will" things, as God does? My view on free will would be, its free, but we are affected by our environment etc. We are within in a "machine" Some are crappy, some are better, but how we deal with the matter, how we pilot the machine, is important, and what defines moral actions. So I am not denying that we are affected by our environment, but it seems that the internal piece is what chooses, is what does the choosing.

You raised an objection against the argument I gave. The objection was that my argument rules out God as an agent cause. I responded that a theist can conceive of God in several ways that you weren't allowing for. The issue doesn't arise for an atheist, so why is it a problem that an atheist isn't going to agree with such a picture? Atheists aren't going to object this way to begin with, since they don't believe in a God who might have been thought to be an agent cause.

Why should we think of angels as outside time? I don't know of anyone in the entire God and time literature who even considers that any being besides God is outside time. They're presented in the Bible as created beings, which means they had a beginning, which in turn means they are temporal. I can't think of any philosophical reason for thinking of them as atemporal, either.

I'm not sure exactly what your last paragraph is getting at. Why don't we wait until I present some compatibilist views to see if what you're saying is one of those or something else? Some compatibilists like to speak in terms of internal causes (or certain kinds of internal causes) being crucial for freedom.

Huh? I am not sure what you mean by "The objection was that my argument rules out God as an agent cause." I don't think I made that argument, maybe I was unclear. Could you explain some more?

Good point about the angels having a beginning. Question though (not retheroical, just curious) Humans are temporal but once we come to Heaven, we go into an atemporal world correct? An eternal place, that is outside of Time no?

Also about the other thing, the thing I wasn't to clear on. What I was saying was, that I do not deny that we are affected by our environment/genes/etc. But we do have an "internal piece" our spirit that wills those things. We ultimately choose and are responsible for our actions, no?

Humans are temporal but once we come to Heaven, we go into an atemporal world correct?

That very concept seems inherently contradictory to me. How can something that is temporal become atemporal? If something is atemporal, then its whole being is outside time. It doesn't have a past, so it can't have a past that was in time. Eternal life can't be atemporal. It's got to be unending temporal life.

Also about the other thing, the thing I wasn't to clear on. What I was saying was, that I do not deny that we are affected by our environment/genes/etc. But we do have an "internal piece" our spirit that wills those things. We ultimately choose and are responsible for our actions, no?

I'm still holding off on this issue until I can get my second compatibilist post completed. Once the compatibilist views are clear, and you can see what the compatibilist says, the issue might disappear for you. The compatibilist very clearly admits that we make choices and that we are responsible for our actions, because our choices come from within us in some important way. There are different compatibilist views about what important factors makes that difference.

Huh? I am not sure what you mean by "The objection was that my argument rules out God as an agent cause." I don't think I made that argument, maybe I was unclear. Could you explain some more?

My understanding of your use of the image of God as indicating that our freedom is like God's is that you were trying to suggest that nothing causes God, and God causes God's decisions and then trying to use that as a reason to think the same is true of us. My point is that you can think something like that and mean "God causes God's decisions" in an agent causation way, but you can also think it and mean it in a compatibilist way. I thought you were trying to argue that just the agent causation way would explain this feature of God, and I wanted to resist that. If I've missed something in your argument, please let me know, but even given what you've said since then I don't see anything that helps me interpret it in another way.

Oh okay. Now I see. Well, my question is, isn't Heaven an atemporal place?

As for the "God causes God's actions" what I meant was "God wills his actions" Think of Aristotle's (I think it was him) example. The stone moves because the sick caused it to. The stick moves because the hand causes it to. The hand moves because the man causes it to move. The man willed it. If we were to take into account all this stuff about genes and environmental effects , we could say: The stone moves because the sick caused it to. The stick moves because the hand causes it to. The hand moves because the brain causes it to move. The brain and all the physical if affected by the rest of the world, but ultimately the man causes it. So the man willed it. God decides things, and is not forced to do so by outside forces, and neither are we. Is that more clear?

Heaven, maybe, if by that you mean the domain of God. There's no reason to think the resurrected existence taught in the New Testament as the New Earth is atemporal.

It depends on what you mean by "forced". Libertarians think being predetermined means you're forced. Compatibilists distinguish between being forced and being predetermined in a way that's compatible with freedom.

That very concept seems inherently contradictory to me. How can something that is temporal become atemporal? If something is atemporal, then its whole being is outside time. It doesn't have a past, so it can't have a past that was in time. Eternal life can't be atemporal. It's got to be unending temporal life.

As Christians we believe that Christ who was atemporal became temporal. Is that contradictory? If we accept this, we must find some way to identify a temporal being with an atemporal one without losing the temporality or the atemporality. I can see that that is difficult, but I don't see why it is impossible. If it can be done, it leaves open the possibility of us becoming atemporal. Whether we actually do is another matter, perhaps more of theology than philosophy.

Those who work in the area of divine atemporality in philosophy of religion acknowledge that it's difficult to put that together with the incarnation (but of course the incarnation is a difficult philosophical issue to begin with). One thought is that Trinitarians who believe in an atemporal God should think of Christ as one being with the atemporal God but in his being the second person of the Trinity is temporal. Another thought is that the second person of the Trinity is both in the eternal, atemporal realm with respect to being of one nature with God the Father and also in the temporal realm with respect to his humanity. I'm not sure if those are equivalent or not, but they're two ways to think about it.

But one way that I don't think makes any sense is that he was atemporal and then became temporal. That amounts to saying that he was outside time and thus didn't experience any succession and then later (which requires succession with a before and after) is in time and experiences succession. The relationship between the before and after is itself a temporal relation.

By forced I mean "made to" In other words, to not be forced would to make the descion, not your environment, or your genes, but you, yourself chose.

The point about the incarnation seems like a good point. I think your response about his divine part being atemporal and his human part being temporal makes sense, but it seems to me, that by being adopted sons of god, we inherit some of Gods nature, is not that not true? So wouldn't the explanation for Jesus also work for humans to some extent?

Compatibilists would say that you chose, not your environment or your genes. They caused you to be a certain way, and your being that way caused you to do it, but you chose. Libertarians would say that your choice can be truly free only if your being that way doesn't cause you to do it. Compatibilists disagree.

You can't orthodoxly speak of Christ as having a divine part and a human part. That's why I said it the way I did rather than in terms of parts.

As for us, do you think we inherit omniscience or omnipotence? The statement about the divine nature in II Peter is in an ethical context, so it makes sense to interpret it in terms of ethics, i.e. eventually having moral perfection.

Compatibilists would say that you chose, not your environment or your genes. They caused you to be a certain way, and your being that way caused you to do it, but you chose.
==== So you were forced to choose?

You can't orthodoxly speak of Christ as having a divine part and a human part. That's why I said it the way I did rather than in terms of parts.
==== Well you know what I mean. Sorry bad use of language. I need to be more careful.

As for us, do you think we inherit omniscience or omnipotence? The statement about the divine nature in II Peter is in an ethical context, so it makes sense to interpret it in terms of ethics, i.e. eventually having moral perfection.
=== Good point about omniscience. So would you say that we do not inherit any of God's nature?

You were caused to choose that way. For you to have been forced to choose that way, you would have had to have been presented with only one option or been forced to do something against your desires, beliefs, and character. That clearly is not the case with most of our decisions, and so most of our decisions aren't forced, even if they are caused. But as I've been saying for this whole conversation, I haven't gotten to presenting compatibilism yet.

I don't think we should think of any human literally as having God's nature (except Christ of course). It's after all God's nature, and we're not God. If we had it, we'd be God, and it's not something that exists in parts that you can have some of. I do think you can speak of human beings having characteristics true of God, and that's what the II Peter mention of partaking of the divine nature refers to. It's about having character traits that belong to God that can only come from a divine source.

You were caused to choose that way. For you to have been forced to choose that way, you would have had to have been presented with only one option or been forced to do something against your desires, beliefs, and character. That clearly is not the case with most of our decisions, and so most of our decisions aren't forced, even if they are caused. But as I've been saying for this whole conversation, I haven't gotten to presenting compatibilism yet.
==== Of course, I know. I am just asking questions. I don't understand how something can cause you to do something, but not force you.

I don't think we should think of any human literally as having God's nature (except Christ of course). It's after all God's nature, and we're not God. If we had it, we'd be God, and it's not something that exists in parts that you can have some of. I do think you can speak of human beings having characteristics true of God, and that's what the II Peter mention of partaking of the divine nature refers to. It's about having character traits that belong to God that can only come from a divine source.
==== Thats what I mean, I guess. That we have divine traits that have a divine source. I am not saying we have God's nature, but that we have the thumbprint of God in our nature. He breathed (the hebrew word for breath being spirit) into us.

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