Philosophy: April 2007 Archives

The 46th Philosophers' Carnival is up at The Space of Reasons.

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 gave some reasons why many contemporary philosophers resist libertarian views of free will. In this post, I move on to compatibilist views of freedom.

We've now seen some accounts of freedom in an indeterministic universe. Compatibilists seek to give a very different account of freedom. According to the compatibilist, freedom is compatible with being predetermined (whether determinism as an overall thesis is true or not). So if it turns out that determinism is true, or even if only certain of our actions are predetermined, that does not in itself mean that our actions and choices are unfree.

One reason compatibilists give in support of their view is that libertarian requirements for freedom seem to go against why we really do things. A determinist would insist that we do things because we have certain beliefs and desires, because of some inner state that we are in. If I believe I have two options and that the second one will accomplish what I want, then I will take the second option, unless some other reason within me leads me not to (e.g. maybe I believe it would be wrong to choose option 2).

If I had different desires or beliefs, I might have chosen differently. However, I didn't have different desires and beliefs, and perhaps I wouldn't have without the whole history of the world being different. The point here is that events in me - my having certain beliefs and desires - are what determine my actions. Are these things totally under my control? As we saw, an incompatibilist raises the objection that determinism means everything we do is caused by things ultimately outside our control. A compatibilist points out that the very things we often consider to be the explanation of why we do things are also the kind of thing that can ultimately be caused by things outside our control. If my free choices are just the ones that we seem to do for no reason, then how can it even be said to be me who is choosing it? On the other hand, if my character traits, beliefs, desires, attitudes, and so on are the explanation for my choice, then it seems much more connected to who I am. It is for this reason that compatibilists insist that we are unfree if our actions aren't caused by certain kinds of events within us. It is for this reason that as diverse figures as Jonathan Edwards and David Hume have infamously claimed that we aren't free unless we're predetermined.

So compatibilists resist libertarianism and but still want to avoid saying that we're not free, so they try to come up with an account of freedom that's consistent with determinism but that fits with our ordinary sense of freedom. The primary strategy is to assume determinism is true and then still be able to distinguish between cases when we're clearly not free on any view but other cases where we still seem to have a kind of freedom (though not one that will satisfy libertarians) even if determinism is true. Some compatibilists think this debate is merely a verbal dispute; it's purely about the meaning of words. If we mean one thing by the word 'freedom', then we don't have it, but if we mean another thing by that word then we are free. The trick then is to figure out which meaning is closer to how we use the word in English. Compatibilists will then argue that libertarians have begun with an incorrect meaning of the term and then derived the conclusion that determinism and free will are incompatible.

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.

This is the forty-first 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 enumerated the main views that can be taken on the issues of freedom and determinism. Now I'd like to begin looking at arguments for and against the various positions.

In an earlier post in this series, I presented several arguments for thinking that we are free. Some people have taken those arguments as arguments that we have libertarian freedom. I don't see how they can be arguments for that. They might come alongside an argument that libertarian freedom is the only kind of freedom worthy of being called freedom. Then the whole package could support libertarianism. But those arguments don't come close to showing that we have libertarian freedom. A compatibilist could present the same arguments and say that they support thinking of ourselves as free. I'll return to this point in a couple posts when I look at some of the reasons people give for being compatibilists. I thought it was worth pointing out here because I want to make it clear that those aren't strictly speaking arguments for libertarianism but simply arguments for thinking we are free. Arguments for libertarianism don't conclude that we are free but that freedom is of a certain nature, and those arguments don't argue for any conception of what freedom is.

I do think the strongest arguments for libertarianism are actually arguments for incompatibilism combined with the conviction that we are free. So if incompatibilism is true, and we are free, then we must have a kind of freedom that isn't compatible with determinism. I won't try here to motivate any further the view that we are free, so nothing in the argument I'm about to present would be objectionable to the hard determinist, who accepts that incompatibilism is true but insists that we don't have freedom because we are predetermined. Assuming that we are free in some sense, as most people do, we now proceed to look at a reason some give for saying that we couldn't be free unless we had libertarian freedom (i.e. unless determinism is false).

I take this version of the argument largely from Peter van Inwagen, in particular from his book An Essay on Free Will and his chapter on freedom in the second edition of his Metaphysics book (which has a correction of a mistake found in both the first edition and the earlier free will book). These are probably among the best presentations of contemporary libertarian arguments that you can find. Some libertarians won't agree with van Inwagen on everything, but I think he follows arguments where they lead in a way that some libertarians seem a little squishier to me (but I'm open to finding that there is more hope for certain views than van Inwagen allows for; at this point I don't see it; more on that in the next post). So this post and the next one will be heavily dependent on van Inwagen's work on this subject.

The primary argument van Inwagen gives for incompatibilism is roughly as follows. Following Clifford Williams' term from his excellent little book Free Will and Determinism: a Dialogue, I usually call this the before-birth argument in my classes:

Ainslee Hooper hosts the 44th Philosophers' Carnival.

Joe Carter has a (perhaps unintentionally, I'm not sure) rather hilarious post about God, vampires, and the anthropic principle. Somehow Joe managed to find an academic paper on this: "Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies: Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality" by Costas J. Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi. 

If these physicists are right, we can reasonably infer from the feeding habits of vampires in vampire literature, together with the continuing population of non-vampire human beings, that there are at most 512 vampires in the world, assuming there are vampire-slayers. Without vampire-slayers, it seems there just couldn't be vampires at all, according to these numbers.

Now I'm not going to examine the connection with the anthropic principle that Joe is emphasizing, other than to observe that both just seem to be simple cases of inferences to the best explanation, but I do have one philosophical point to make. The argument against vampires leaves out a crucial step. One scenario ought to be considered more carefully before ruling out the possibility of vampires given our evidence. The argument takes the continuing population of humans as a piece of starting evidence. But should we be so sure that the population really is continuing in the way that we think it is? Isn't it possible that the population is just a growing numbers of vampires, and only relatively few of the people who remain are still real humans, with a huge vampire conspiracy going on pretending that humans are still around in large numbers? If the vampires have enough technology to clone humans to provide "offspring" for the vampires masquerading as human couples and a continued food source, then I can't see how this assumption can be ruled out as easily as is being done.

The paper makes some funny points about ghosts and zombies also, but I thought this was just a good example of physicists trying to pass philosophical arguments off as science, which is usually complained about when it's intelligent design but apparently just good science when it's skeptical. Well, it turns out a philosopher might have been able to point out how they're not being skeptical enough. A good skeptic wouldn't rule out the skeptical scenario I proposed without some more careful argumentation.

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