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15 February 2005

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Blandula That old favourite, free will versus determinism, seems to be in the air again. The other day I was reading James Anderson's 'Perspex' theory (more on this another time) and came across his formulation that: 'An agentís will is free if it is not willed by another agent.'  Then the latest issue of the JCS is devoted to David Hodgson's attempt to give a philosophical justification for something like the common sense view of free will.

Anderson's definition, as quoted above, seems to need some revision. Although not being subject to someone else's will is certainly a condition of free action, it isn't the case that someone else can deprive me of freedom just by willing me to do whatever I am actually doing. My friend may fervently hope I have bought a particular book she wants to read; that doesn't mean that, as I stand in the bookshop making that particular purchase, I have no freedom of action. In general, however, from the quick look I've had, Anderson seems to make a fairly sensible compatibilist case.

Hodgson, on the contrary, is out for freedom red in tooth and claw: a freedom incompatible with determinism. I admire his pluck while deploring his judgement. I think it's a quixotic enterprise, but anyone who sets out to defend the common sense point of view has my sympathy.

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Bitbucket Is radical libertarianism really the common sense view? Frankly, I'm not sure. The common sense view isn't actually a crisply articulated philosophical thesis, is it? That's why we have to do philosophy in the first place, because the common sense view is unclear in itself.

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Blandula Well, I suppose I'll grant you that, though I think radical determinism is pretty far from common sense. Hodgson sets out nine theses. Probably the key ones are the first and fifth. The first says that there are situations in which the laws of nature allow two possible states to follow a choice, rather than just one. The fifth says that people can make effective non-random choices between the alternatives, influenced but not determined by any rules or reasons. I feel there's an element of duplication here - we've got an indeterminacy in the world and an indeterminacy in the mind. If you allow me a mental capacity to make effective non-random, non-determined choices, I think I can run you up a perfectly good system of free will with that alone - I don't need an additional indeterminacy in the external world. But perhaps I've got the wrong end of the stick.

I think most people will find it hard to accept that there can, strictly, be two possible sequels to any given situation. Hodgson invokes quantum mechanics, but even if we accept that there's an indeterminacy there, that in no way authorises him to assume macroscopic indeterminacies of the sort he needs.

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Bitbucket I think it's hard to see how there can be any real indeterminacy in the world. There is a deep metaphysical principle that nothing happens unless it must; and that what does happen is the minimum necessary to satisfy the laws of physics. If it were otherwise, anything could happen at any time, and the world would be arbitrary, if not actually null.

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Blandula But the laws of physics might be such that they allow two or more different minimum outcomes, mightn't they? Anyway, my main intention was not to discuss Hodgson.

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Bitbucket So what, then - your own half-baked ideas? I can do without another discussion of the supposedly wonderful, unique, magic human property of 'free' action. All you really need to know is that determinism is true. And I repeat, it has to be true. Even if all our current science somehow turned out to be wrong, the Universe has to follow some set of rules - some unambiguous set of rules. Otherwise it would be incoherent, unmotivated, or both. And if it follows rules, it's deterministic.

In fact, here's an even simpler argument. Event A happens. At all previous times, then, it was true that event A was going to happen. So event A was already determined at all previous times.

That is all. Tell the fat lady to start singing.

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Blandula Don't jump to conclusions. In fact, I want to argue that the problem is illusory; that this is one of those issues where the real challenge is not finding the answer, but working out why people think there's a problem. Now, the problem is supposed to be a contradiction between two sentences like the following.

  1. My action A happened because of the preceding physical causes that gave rise to it.
  2. My action A was freely chosen by me.

In fact, there is no contradiction. Sensible people since, oh, St Augustine at least, have been patiently pointing this out, but it never makes any difference. People always feel, and probably always will, that there is a problem here. I think...

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Bitbucket Whoa! The contradiction is obvious. If sentence 1 is true, then action A had to happen - you could not have done otherwise. If sentence 2 is true, action A did not have to happen, and you could have done otherwise. Contradictions don't come much clearer than that. It's just that sentence 2, strictly interpreted, is false.

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BlandulaNo, no. You see, discussions of what could have happened always depend on implicit but limited assumptions about the circumstances. That's what makes them worthwhile, because they shed light on the particular facets of the circumstances which are assumed to be under consideration. If you tell somebody you could jump a fence, you're telling them about your own state of fitness and training, not making any kind of prediction about whether the course of your life will ever, in fact, lead you to jump the fence. If someone asked you whether you could jump the fence and you said "No, because I don't intend to and therefore won't." they would think you were misunderstanding (or perhaps rhetorically countering a perceived suggestion). But that's the kind of stance you take up when you go off on your determinist tack. In effect, you just refuse to talk about possibility. You insist on the whole history of the Universe being implicitly specified down to the movement of every atom. Then you say; given the state of the Universe, only one thing could have happened. But that's vacuous. You're just saying 'given that everything was the way it was, then things are going to be the way they're going to be'.

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Bitbucket So really, what you're offering us here is yet another version of stale old compatibilism. We're not really free, but don't worry, we can redefine freedom to mean something less demanding?

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BlandulaI'm not offering another version of compatibilism: what I'm offering is, if you like, non-specific compatibilism. This is one of the reasons, I think, that people have difficulty accepting that there isn't a problem. Compatibilists search for a single formulation, a single definition of freedom which will cover all cases - but there is no such universal version. When we talk about being free, we just mean free of the particular constraints which are implicitly under consideration at the moment. We may be free because we're not in jail, because we have the money to do what we want, or because we haven't been brainwashed. Absolute freedom doesn't make sense; only freedom relative to particular projects and circumstances.

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Bitbucket I think you're wrong, but this is a healthy development - you've given up one of the supposedly unique features of human consciousness. After all, my computer is free in relation to certain projects and in certain circumstances. It's free to play me a tune if the speakers are plugged in; free to store my files if it has enough space for them. So by your reckoning, I'm entitled to say that it, too, has free will?

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