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Thursday
Jan022014

Causes, Laws, and Free Will - Why Determinism Doesn't Matter

Being able to choose among alternative courses of action is central to our common sense view of ourselves as agents with free will. We ordinarily take it for granted that we have a genuine choice about what to do and that we have the ability to choose and act in ways other than those in which we actually choose and act. But many people think that in order for this common sense view of ourselves to be true, determinism must be false. If determinism is true--these people believe--nobody is ever able to choose and act otherwise; they think that it is only if we would somehow be exempt from the laws of nature that we can be free and responsible agents. In the brand new book Causes, Laws, and Free Will - Why Determinism Doesn't Matter, Kadri Vihvelin argues convincingly that--even though it might seem to be so--it is not the case that determinism (if true) would rob us of free will. Indeed, she argues that whether determinism is true or not doesn't matter because we can have free will--including the ability to choose and do otherwise--whether our universe turns out to be deterministic or indeterministic. On careful examination, all of the arguments intended to show that the ability to choose and act otherwise is incompatible with determinism fail. The widespread belief that determinism somehow robs us of free will is shown to spring from mistaken ideas about the nature of causation, laws of nature, and the logic of counterfactuals.

 

The Return of Classical Compatibilism

There are many philosophers today who defend the claim that "moral responsibility" is compatible with determinism, but few defend the claim that the ability to choose and do otherwise is compatible with determinism. This makes Vihvelin a minority among contemporary philosophers. According to the recent PhilPapers survey, 59.1% of professional philosophers consider themselves to be "compatibilists", but this figure is misleading since most contemporary compatibilists are what Vihvelin call "moral compatibilists". Moral compatibilists either accept, or at least do not dispute, the (incompatibilist) claim that if determinism is true, then no one is ever able to do otherwise. Moral compatibilists defend only the thesis that moral responsibility (and/or moral blame, moral obligation, etc.) is compatible with determinism and evade the deeper issue of the compatibility or incompatibility of determinism and free will (understood as including the ability to choose and act otherwise). Elsewhere Vihvelin has called contemporary mainstream compatibilists "romantic compatibilists" as they are labouring under the romantic notion that they don't even need to address what many people consider to be the fundamental issue and instead concern themselves merely with "moral freedom", or "the kind of freedom that is needed for moral responsibility", or some such thing.

 

Until at least the first half of the twentieth century, it was in this way that the free will problem was understood. (That is, as concerning the compatibility or incompatibility of the ability to do otherwise with determinism). By returning to this traditional way of conceiving of the problem, Vihvelin is reviving classical compatibilism--a view that goes back to Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, but that has almost disappeared from the contemporary philosophical landscape. As such, Causes, Laws, And Free Will fills a gap and constitutes a much needed addition to the literature. Her defence of the view that we do have free will and that this is compatible with determinism does not rest on any claims about morality or moral responsibility. Vihvelin believes that our common sense belief that we have free will, including the ability to do otherwise, can and should be discussed separately from considerations of moral responsibility. The problem of whether free will is compatible with determinism, she rightly insists, is a problem in metaphysics and not in ethics. Though, of course the issue might have implications for moral philosophy, and on law. (Also, there might be reasons for being sceptical about moral responsibility that have nothing to do with determinism. As Vihvelin points out in a footnote, a compatibilist can be a moral sceptic or nihilist.)

 

For me, the classical compatibilist view is the only one that makes sense. The moral compatibilists have done more to obscure the debate than to advance it. In this interview published on her blog, Vihvelin remarks that the literature on "Frankfurt-style examples" is now an entire sub-field of philosophy that has been going on for over 40 years. She rightly insists that such examples fail to show what they are supposed to show (that free will is not needed for moral responsibility) and that this literature is a dead end. 

 

Missing pieces

Vihvelin provides a satisfactory philosophical analysis of the fallacious reasoning underlying incompatibilist arguments. What the book lacks, however, is a psychological story about what tempts people towards incompatibilist ideas. Older compatibilists ventured such theses. Here is, for instance, Bertrand Russell:

 

[T]he subjective sense of freedom, sometimes alleged against determinism, has no bearing on the question whatever. The view that it has a bearing rests upon the belief that causes compel their effects, or that nature enforces obedience to its laws as governments do. These are mere anthropomorphic superstitions, due to assimilation of causes with volitions and of natural laws with human edicts. We feel that our will is not compelled, but that only means that it is not other than we choose it to be. It is one of the demerits of the traditional theory of causality that it has created an artificial opposition between determinism and the freedom of which we are introspectively conscious.

 

Psychological hypotheses of this sort are often viewed with suspicion by philosophers, but I still believe that there might be something to this. It is widely known that humans have a strong tendency to see intentional agency in inanimate things and processes; we see faces in the clouds, we ascribe intentions to mindless shapes on a computer screen, etc. Perhaps this universal human tendency may play at least some role in producing or reinforcing incompatibilist intuitions? Here, cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, could make headway, corroborating or falsifying such psychological hypothesis of the underlying causes of incompatibilist ideas.

 

Concerning recent claims that results from neuroscience show that we don't have free will, Vihvelin has little to say. This is probably because this has already been said by others. See for example this podcast from Philosophy Bites in which another female philosopher (and neuroscientist) argues that neuroscience (the Libet experiments) fails to show that we don't have free will. 

 

Another missing piece is that the book does not explicitly discuss the moral, legal, or political implications of the issues at all. It may turn out that there are no such implications, but if so that would itself be something that deserves to be made explicit. 

 

Causes, Laws, and Free Will is by far the best text I have read on the subject. A good place to start is with the aforementioned interview and then this chapter-by-chapter summary of the book.

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