Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy

June 19th, 2011

My first philosophy book was published today (my 75th birthday). Here is the press release material.

Book cover

A sourcebook/textbook on the problem of free will and determinism. Contains a history of the free will problem, a taxonomy of current free will positions, the standard argument against free will, the physics, biology, and neuroscience of free will, the most plausible and practical solution of the problem, and reviews of the work of the leading determinist Ted Honderich, the leading libertarian Robert Kane, the well-known compatibilist Daniel Dennett, and the determinism-agnostic Alfred Mele.

‘Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy’ | Bob Doyle | Paperback 9780983580201 |
480 pages, b&w, 40 figures, 15 sidebars, glossary, bibliography, index. $29.95

Notes to Editors: This book is based on the Freedom section of the Information Philosopher website. It will be available in a number of digital eBook editions (Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad/iPhone, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Sony Reader). It will also be available online as a Google Book (PDF).

The eBook editions contain a digital publishing innovation. Amazon normally recommends eliminating the index because eBook pages are repaginated depending on font size. But an index is vital for a textbook. And an index needs page numbers. Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy may be the first eBook with page numbers anchored in the text.

Page numbers are visible in the text of Free Will eBook editions, for easy citations. The eBooks also have fully interactive tables of contents (Amazon best navigation) as well as including the print edition’s ToC.

The print edition will be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, in bookstores, and especially university bookstores in the US and UK. Print-on-demand versions will be available via the Espresso Book Machines network worldwide.

Notes to Distributors and Booksellers: The book is available for wholesale purchase at standard trade discount (returnable) from Ingram Lightning Source in the US, UK, and Australia:

About the Author: Bob Doyle is a scientist (Ph.D. in Astrophysics, Harvard, 1968), an inventor with multiple patents (Parker Brothers’ Merlin, 1978), an entrepreneur (Super8 Sound, 1973; MicroCosmos, 1974; iXO, 1982), a software developer (MacPublisher for Macintosh, 1984), a journalist (NewMedia, EContent), a web innovator (he helped produce the first podcast in 2003), and a philosopher whose influential website (www.informationphilosopher.com) has highly ranked pages on over 200 philosophers and scientists.
He is currently an Associate in the Harvard University Department of Astronomy faculty.

Doyle wrote MacPublisher, the first desktop publishing program, in 1984 as a tool to help him write this book, but it had to wait for twenty-seven years to get finished. Doyle used the Adobe InDesign desktop publishing program (with Illustrator and Photoshop for the figures) to design and produce the book himself.

About the book:

John Searle called it a scandal that after all the centuries of writing about free will, we have not made much progress. According to Doyle, a more serious scandal today is that academic philosophers are convincing many young students that they are deterministic biological machines with only a “compatibilist free will.”

Doyle recounts the many different forms of determinism that have been used over the centuries to deny human freedom and responsibility. To end the scandal, philosophers need to teach a two-stage model of free will and creativity, one that Doyle finds in the work of a dozen philosophers and scientists going back to William James’ talk to Harvard Divinity School students in 1884.

The Doyle/James two-stage model reconciles free will with indeterminism, just as David Hume reconciled freedom of action with determinism (and R.E.Hobart reconciled free will with determination).

The free-will model is actually triply compatible; compatible with determinism (of the Hume and especially Hobart kind), compatible with indeterminism (since William James), and compatible with biological evolution.

Doyle calls this “comprehensive compatibilism,” to encourage compatibilists who won’t have to change their self-descriptions, but just broaden their definition of compatibilism to include his limited indeterminism and the evolutionary connection with neurobiology.

The two-stage model emerges naturally as a consequence of evolution. It is not a metaphysical free will, a mystery or gift of God. It is rather a biophysical free will that evolved by natural selection from lower animals, which Martin Heisenberg has shown have a two-stage “behavioral freedom.” They “originate” actions that are not pre-determined by the laws of nature and conditions immediately before their “decisions.”

The first “free” stage is indeterministic. In humans the second “will” stage is normally adequately determined, by reasons and motives, desires and feelings, by character and values. But an agent can also “flip a coin” between indifferent alternatives, so the two-stage model also supports undetermined liberties at the moment of choice. Undetermined liberties are a subset of all possible actions that are consistent with character and values, etc.

Our thoughts are free. Our actions are willed.

Reading Emil du Bois-Reymond

June 18th, 2011

Emil du Bois-Reymond is important less for his work as a physiologist and the father of electrophysiology, than for the use of his ideas by Ernst Cassirer to establish the importance of physical determinism and a dualistic spiritual component for philosophy, somewhat like Immanuel Kant’s noumenal realm.

Cassirer’s arguments were a great influence on the early quantum physicists, including even Max Born, who was reluctant to press his discovery of irreducible chance in the form of quantum events that could only be predicted statistically.

In his book Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics, Cassirer says of du Bois-Reymond

In his famous speech “Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens” (1872) Emil du Bois-Reymond lifted the Laplacean formula out of its long oblivion and placed it at the focal point of epistemological and scientific discussion…

It claimed to fix once and for all the permanent, unalterable form of all scientific knowledge. At the same time, however, it regarded this very form as an insuperable limit. For du Bois-Reymond elevated scientific knowledge far above all accidental, merely empirical bounds. Within its own sphere he endowed it with a kind of omniscience. But this exaltation is only the precursor of its fall. From the heights of the strictest, most exact knowledge it is dashed into the abyss of ignorance, an ignorance from which nothing can deliver it, for it is not temporary and relative but final and absolute. If it were possible for human understanding to raise itself to the ideal of the Laplacean spirit, the universe in every single detail past and future would be completely transparent. “For such a spirit the hairs on our head would be numbered and no sparrow would fall to the ground without his knowledge. He would be a prophet facing forward and backward for whom the universe would be a single fact, one great truth.” And yet this one truth would present only a limited and partial aspect of the totality of being, of genuine “reality.” For reality contains vast and important domains which must remain forever and in principle inaccessible to the kind of scientific knowledge thus described. No enhancement or intensification of this knowledge can bring us a step nearer to the inner mysteries of being. Our knowledge dissolves into nothingness as soon as we leave the world of material atoms and enter the world of the “spirit,” of consciousness. Here our understanding ends; for even with perfect, “astronomically exact” knowledge of all the material systems of the universe, including the system of our brain, it would still be impossible for us to comprehend how material being can give rise to the enigmatic appearance of consciousness.
Cassirer limits understanding to make room for spiritual mysteries, and follows positivism in denying the possibility of “explanations”
Accordingly the demand for “explanation” not only cannot be fulfilled here - strictly speaking it cannot even be raised: ignorabimus is the only answer that science an give to the question of the essence and origin of consciousness.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century the problem as thus put by du Bois-Reymond exercised a strong influence both on metaphysics and on the theory of scientific principles. Of course the attempt was made to escape from the radical consequences he had drawn. There was no ready surrender to the apodictic dogmatic conclusion of du Bois-Reymond’s speech. But there seemed to be no doubt that here an important and pertinent problem had been raised with which epistemology and science had to wrestle using every power at their disposal. Even the neo-Kantian movement, which began in the early seventies almost at the time of du Bois-Reymond’s speech, did not at first alter the situation substantially.

Bois-Reymond’s speech [was made in] the period of controversy over materialism, when philosophy was confronted with the crisis of deciding whether to accept the guidance of scientific thought, which seemed to lead inevitably to a strictly mechanistic view of nature, or to maintain and defend its own position over against the scientific view, granting to the “spiritual” a different and special status.
For Cassirer, the work of du Bois-Reymond is to defend the spiritual elements of philosophy against materialism
It was here that du Bois-Reymond’s speech took place, interpretable as a resolution of doubt and a way out of the dilemma. For it appeared to do justice to both claims, to satisfy in a certain sense the demands of materialism as well as those of systems having a place for the spiritual. Materialism and mechanism could find satisfaction in du Bois-Reymond’s definition of science, for in this domain their basic maxims were not only recognized but set up as the sole and exclusive standard. “For us there exists nothing but mechanical knowledge,” du Bois-Reymond emphasized, “no matter how miserable a substitute it is for true knowledge, and accordingly only one true form of scientific thought, that of mathematical physics.” On the other hand, however, this form was rejected in regard to intrinsically transcendental problems. The scientist has to give up once and for all the idea of investigating these problems, leaving the way open for others to attempt purely speculative solutions. Thus the radical advocates of materialism as well as its bitterest opponents could appeal with equal right to du Bois-Reymond’s basic thesis: the former, because they found enunciated in it the identity of scientific with materialistic, mechanistic thought, the latter because in addition a reality was assumed which was in principle inaccessible to scientific thought and which remained as a dark and impenetrable residue.

Du Bois-Reymond was quite wrong about determinism, which was equated with necessity in the eighteenth-century debates about freedom versus necessity. He is right that those debates turned into questions of freedom versus determinism in the nineteenth century, but they both assumed there were causal chains that threatened human freedom. See chapter 18 on “Cassirer’s Thesis” in Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance for more.

Reading Michael Frede

May 24th, 2011

Michael Frede argued that the modern notion of a free will was not present in the earliest Greek thinkers, but developed late in Stoicism, especially with Epictetus, and was refined by Augustine to become the modern notion.

Frede thus appears to agree with Susanne Bobzien, but it depends on the definition of “free will” and the “free will problem” that they are using.

Frede claims to have no preconception of free will. He hopes that it will emerge from a careful reading of the ancient works. In his 2011 book, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, he says,

“Now, though I do not presuppose a specific notion of a free will, let alone want to endorse or advocate some specific notion of it, I do rely on something like a general idea of a free will, something like a schema which any specific notion of a free will or any particular version of the notion of a free will, at least in antiquity, will fit into. I do not arrive at this general idea or schema on the basis of some philosophical view as to what any notion of a free will has to look like but rather with the benefit of historical hindsight. That is to say, I have looked at the relevant ancient texts and have abstracted this schema from those texts which explicitly talk of a will, the freedom of the will, or a free will. In having such a schema, we shall at least have a general idea of what we are looking for when we investigate the origins of the notion of a free will but without having to commit ourselves to any particular view, ancient or modern, as to what a free will really is.” (pp.6-7)

Frede finds in the Stoics a notion of will that is distinguished from the Platonic or Aristotelian notions by denying any role for a nonrational element in the mind or soul.

“With Stoicism, then, we get for the first time a notion of the will as an ability of the mind or of reason to make choices and decisions. This ability, though, which we all share, in the case of each of us is formed and developed in different ways. How it develops is crucially a matter of the effort and care with which we ourselves develop this ability, which we also might neglect to do. The will thus formed and developed accounts for the different choices and decisions different human beings make. As we have seen, the precise form in which the Stoics conceive of the will depends on their denial of a nonrational part or parts of the soul. Hence in this specific form the notion of a will was unacceptable to Platonists and to Aristotelians, who continued to insist on a nonrational part of the soul.”

See Michael Frede on I-Phi

Reading J. L. Austin

April 6th, 2011

John L. Austin was an analytic philosopher who favored the analysis of ordinary language, rather than the creation of new technical philosophical terms, such as the “logical atoms” of Bertrand Russell and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein. He opposed logical positivistic philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, who believed that all sentences had a truth value. For Austin, some sentences were not passive statements about facts, but performative utterances, such as “I do” in a wedding ceremony. He called them “speech-acts.”

Austin analyzed the ordinary meaning of “I can,” and argued that there might be an implicit “if” lurking in the background of such statements. “Are cans constitutionally iffy?,” he asked in his famous 1956 essay “Ifs and Cans.”

In his Ethics, G. E. Moore had made free will compatible with determinism by analyzing the phrase “could have done otherwise” as meaning, “could have done otherwise, if I had chosen to do otherwise”
Austin’s Putt
Austin extends “I can” to mean “I can, if I try.” He separates the physical ability from the desire or intention to perform an action. His celebrated example is (footnote 9 in “Ifs and Cans”) an attempt to “hole” a putt. He normally has the ability to putt successfully. He wants (or tries or intends) to hole a putt. But in one case, his physical ability (or perhaps physical conditions beyond his control) prevent him from making the putt.

Austin then asks, could I have done otherwise? Could I have made the putt, in exactly the same physical conditions? “Further experiments,” he says, “may confirm my belief that I could have done it although I did not.” This is a sound empirical point of view. If Austin tries to hole the putt several times - on the same green, the same “lie” of the ball, the same distance to the hole, etc. - and finds that he does succeed, say, 95% of the time, it is reasonable to say that he could have, indeed normally would have, holed the putt. Physical reality often gives us only a statistical probability concerning what we “can” do.

In his work, Ethics, P.H.Nowell-Smith, who is also trying to come to grips with the implications of determinism, argues that “could have” means “would have, if.” But Austin argues that this cannot be the categorical statement Nowell-Smith makes of it, because there are so many other conditionals that might be part of the “if” clause - if he had the opportunity, if he had the ability, if he was lucky, etc.

Daniel Dennett on Austin’s Putt
In his 2003 book, Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett says that Austin’s Putt clarifies the mistaken fear that determinism reduces posibilities. Considering that Dennett is an actualist, who believes there is only one possible future, this bears close examination.

First, don’t miss the irony that Dennett is using “possible worlds” thinking, which makes the one world we are in only able to have one possible future, our actual world.

Dennett says

Now that we have a clearer understanding of possible worlds, we can expose three major confusions about possibility and causation that have bedeviled the quest for an account of free will. First is the fear that determinism reduces our possibilities. We can see why the claim seems to have merit by considering a famous example proposed many years ago by John Austin:

Consider the case where I miss a very short putt and kick myself because I could have holed it. It is not that I should have holed it if I had tried: I did try, and missed. It is not that I should have holed it if conditions had been different: that might of course be so, but I am talking about conditions as they precisely were, and asserting that I could have holed it. There is the rub. Nor does “I can hole it this time” mean that I shall hole it this time if I try or if anything else; for I may try and miss, and yet not be convinced that I could not have done it; indeed, further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time, although I did not. (Austin 1961, p. 166)

Austin didn’t hole the putt. Could he have, if determinism is true? The possible-worlds interpretation exposes the misstep in Austin’s thinking. First, suppose that determinism holds, and that Austin misses, and let H be the sentence “Austin holes the putt.” We now need to choose the set X of relevant possible worlds that we need to canvass to see whether he could have made it. Suppose X is chosen to be the set of physically possible worlds that are identical to the actual world at some time t0 prior to the putt. Since determinism says that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future, this set of worlds has just one member, the actual world, the world in which Austin misses. So, choosing set X in this way, we get the result that H does not hold for any world in X. So it was not possible, on this reading, for Austin to hole the putt.

To include adjacent worlds seems to add alternative possibilities?
Of course, this method of choosing X (call it the narrow method) is only one among many. Suppose we were to admit into X worlds that differ in a few imperceptibly microscopic ways from actuality at t0; we might well find that we’ve now included worlds in which Austin holes the putt, even when determinism obtains. This is, after all, what recent work on chaos has shown: Many phenomena of interest to us can change radically if one minutely alters the initial conditions. So the question is: When people contend that events are possible, are they really thinking in terms of the narrow method?

Suppose that Austin is an utterly incompetent golfer, and his partner in today’s foursome is inclined to deny that he could have made the putt. If we let X range too widely, we may include worlds in which Austin, thanks to years of expensive lessons, winds up a championship player who holes the putt easily. That is not what Austin is claiming, presumably. Austin seems to endorse the narrow method of choosing X when he insists that he is “talking about conditions as they precisely were.” Yet in the next sentence he seems to rescind this endorsement, observing that “further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time, although I did not.” What further experiments might indeed confirm Austin’s belief that he could have done it? Experiments on the putting green? Would his belief be shored up by his setting up and sinking near-duplicates of that short putt ten times in a row? If this is the sort of experiment he has in mind, then he is not as interested as he claims he is in conditions as they precisely were. To see this, suppose instead that Austin’s “further experiments” consisted in taking out a box of matches and lighting ten in a row. “See,” he says, “I could have made that very putt.” We would rightly object that his experiments had absolutely no bearing on his claim. Sinking ten short putts would have no more bearing on his claim, understood in the narrow sense as a claim about “conditions as they precisely were.” We suggest that Austin would be content to consider “Austin holes the putt” possible if, in situations very similar to the actual occasion in question, he holes the putt. We think that this is what he meant, and that he would be right to think about his putt this way. This is the familiar, reasonable, useful way to conduct “further experiments” whenever we are interested in understanding the causation involved in a phenomenon of interest. We vary the initial conditions slightly (and often systematically) to see what changes and what stays the same. This is the way to gather useful information from the world to guide our further campaigns of avoidance and enhancement.

Curiously, this very point was made, at least obliquely, by G. E. Moore in the work Austin was criticizing in the passage quoted. Moore’s examples were simple: Cats can climb trees and dogs can’t, and a steamship that is now traveling at 25 knots can, of course, also steam at 20 knots (but not, of course, in precisely the circumstances it is now in, with the engine set at Full Speed Ahead). The sense of “can” invoked in these uncontroversial claims, the sense called “can (general)” by Honoré (1964) in an important but neglected article, is one that requires us to look not at “conditions as they precisely were” but at minor variations on those conditions.

So Austin equivocates when he discusses possibilities. In truth, the narrow method of choosing X does not have the significance that he and many others imagine. From this it follows that the truth or falsity of determinism should not affect our belief that certain unrealized events were nevertheless “possible,” in an important everyday sense of the word. We can bolster this last claim by paying a visit to a narrow domain in which we know with certainty that determinism reigns: the realm of chess-playing computer programs.
(Freedom Evolves, pp. 75-77)

See J. L. Austin on I-Phi

Reading Anselm

April 5th, 2011

Anselm of Canterbury was known as the founder or Scholasticism and originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God. (A perfect being must exist.)

He developed a theory for the freedom of the will in his De Libertate Arbitrii (On Freedom of Choice) somewhat different from that of Augustine (De Libero Arbitrio), in that he combined two of Augustine’s senses into one. These are theories on the freedom of the will and not compatibilist notions that we call “freedom of action” or Isaiah Berlin calls “negative freedom.”

It is convenient to refer to them by Mortimer Adler’s three kinds of freedom. In The Idea of Freedom, vol.I, Adler classifies all freedoms into three categories:

The Circumstantial Freedom of Self-Realization
The Acquired Freedom of Self-Perfection
The Natural Freedom of Self-Determination

Self-realization is freedom from external coercion, political end economic freedom, etc.

The freedom we have identified as circumstantial is variously called “economic freedom,” “political freedom,” “civil liberty,” “individual freedom,” “the freedom of man in society,” “freedom in relation to the state,” and “external freedom.” It is sometimes referred to negatively as “freedom from coercion or restraint,” “freedom from restrictions,” or “freedom from law,” and sometimes positively as “freedom of action,” “freedom of spontaneity,” or “freedom under law.”
(The Idea of Freedom, vol I, p.127)

The Acquired Freedom of Self-perfection is the idea from Plato to Anselm to Kant that we are only free when our decisions are for reasons and we are not slaves to our passions (making moral choices rather than satisfying desires).

This is the acquired or learned knowledge to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, true from false, etc. Anselm calls this libertas, in which man is only free when following a divine moral law. Sinners, says Anselm, do not have this kind of free will, which is odd because sinners are presumably responsible for evil in the world despite an omniscient and omnipotent God.

Instead, Anselm says that those who have the ability (posse) to sin or not to sin have what he calls liberum arbitrium, this is the ability to choose from among alternative possibilities, some of which may include self interest.

For Anselm, thanks to God’s grace, only God and the angels have pure libertas.

Anselm cites the example of an agent who is given the choice to lie or to die. Shall he do the right thing and tell the truth, in which case he dies, or do what is in his self-interest and lie? Compare Robert Kane’s example of the businesswoman who has to choose between aiding a victim in an alley or going on to her business meeting.

This is Adler’s Natural Freedom of Self-Determination.

According to G. Stanley Kane, Anselm combines libertas and liberum arbitrium. This makes sense, because pure freedom (libertas) is to live a perfect life in God’s grace, whereas a more normal sense of free will (liberum arbitrium) involves judgment, decisions between alternatives (including moral decisions).

Reading Rogers Albritton

April 1st, 2011

Rogers Albritton was a philosopher of independent mind who was once chair of the philosophy department at Harvard, and later the chair at UCLA.

Out in California, he became the president of the American Philosophical Association’s western division. His 1985 presidential address, “Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action,” to the APA distinguished freedom of action (the freedom to do what we will) from freedom of the will itself.

“Where there’s a will, there just isn’t always a way,” as he put it.

This was a clear and thoughtful distinction at a time when compatibilists - or “soft determinists” as they were known since William James, were identifying free will with the lack of external constraints.

This view of freedom as freedom of action originated with Thomas Hobbes and David Hume.
It was the foremost view in the age of Newtonian deterministic physics, and continued to grow stronger in modern times despite the discovery of real quantum mechanical indeterminism in the early twentieth century.

Albritton was particularly critical of Elizabeth Anscombe and her essay “Soft Determinism.”

Most philosophers seem to think it quite easy to rob the will of some freedom. Thus Elizabeth Anscombe, in an essay called “Soft Determinism,” appears to suppose that a man who can’t walk because he is chained up has lost some freedom of will. He “has no ‘freedom of will’ to walk,” she says, or, again; no “freedom of the will in respect of walking.” “Everyone will allow,” she says, “that ‘A can walk, i.e. has freedom of the will in respect of walking’ would be gainsaid by A’s being chained up.” And again, “External constraint is generally agreed to be incompatible with freedom”, by which she seems to mean: incompatible with perfect freedom of will, because incompatible with freedom of will to do, or freedom of the will in respect of doing, whatever the constraint prevents.

Albritton made it very clear that we could will something even if it proved impossible to do.

But I do want to dispute, first, what Anscombe thinks “everyone will allow.” I don’t allow it. I don’t see (do you?) that my freedom of will would be reduced at all if you chained me up. You would of course deprive me of considerable freedom of movement if you did that; you would thereby diminish my already unimpressive capacity to do what I will. But I don’t see that my will would be any the less free. What about my “freedom of will to walk,” you will ask (or perhaps you won’t, but there the phrase is, in Anscombe’s essay); what about my “freedom of the will in respect of walking”? I reply that I don’t understand either of those phrases. They seem to me to mix up incoherently two different things: free will, an obscure idea which is the one I am after, on this expedition, and physical ability to walk, a relatively clear idea which has nothing to do with free will.

In the end, Albritton learned from Anscombe, and from John Earman, that there were limits on the “hard determinsm” that we should call predeterminism. But if the indeterminism was just randomness, he found it led to the standard argument against free will:

Fortunately, Elizabeth Anscombe has taught me, by her essay “Causality and Determination,” that I needn’t go in for Lapacean fantasies, and I gather that John Earman is intent on conveying the same reassurance. That’s fine. But one wouldn’t care to think one’s freedom of will secured by the physical possibility in pure theory that one will stay in bed for the rest of one’s life, with Russian explanations ready in case anyone asks, much less by the theoretical possibility that instead of doing one’s duty one will suddenly deliquesce into a nasty liquid all over the rug. Are we or aren’t we as approximately deterministic as alarm clocks, say? That seems an awful question.

Albritton could not see that the adequate determinism we share with alarm clocks can be augmented by some modest libertarianism, a bit of randomness that generates alternative possibilities for our thoughts and subsequent actions.

Reading Susanne Bobzien

March 30th, 2011

Susanne Bobzien is Professor of Philosophy at Yale specializing in the problem of determinism and freedom, especially among Hellenistic and later ancient philosophers.

Her 1998 book Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy is a detailed analysis of arguments, especially those of Chrysippus, for the compatibilism of freedom with causal determinism.

In her book and a 1998 article in Phronesis (Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 133-175), Bobzien identified several variations on the theme of human freedom that were important in antiquity. Three of them are indeterminist freedoms, by which she means the decision is partly or wholly a matter of chance, and does not involve the character and values of the agent. (These are “extreme” libertarian positions, but are held today by Robert Kane, Mark Balaguer, and others):

1) freedom to do otherwise: I am free to do otherwise if, being the same agent, with the same desires and beliefs, and being in the same circumstances, it is possible for me to do or not to do something in the sense that it is not fully causally determined whether or not I do it.

2) freedom of decision: a subtype of freedom to do otherwise. I am free in my decision, if being the same agent, with the same desires and beliefs, and being in the same circumstances, it is possible for me to decide between alternative courses of action in the sense that it is not fully causally determined which way I decide. 1) differs from 2) in that it leaves it undecided in which way it is possible for the agent to do or not to do something.

3) freedom of the will: a subtype of freedom of decision. I act from free will, if I am in the possession of a will, i.e. a specific part or faculty of the soul by means of which I can decide between alternative courses of actions independently of my desires and beliefs [this is "extreme"], in the sense that it is not fully causally determined in which way I decide. 2) differs from 3) in that the latter postulates a specific causally independent faculty or part of the soul which functions as a “decision making faculty.”
(Phronesis, p.133)

Bobzien contrasts these radical libertarianisms with what she calls “un-predeterminist” freedom:

4) un-predeterminist freedom: I have un-predeterminist freedom of action/choice if there are no causes prior to my action/choice which determine whether or not I perform/choose a certain course of action, but in the same circumstances, if I have the same desires and beliefs, I would always do/choose the same thing. Un-predeterminist freedom guarantees the agents’ autonomy in the sense that nothing except the agents themselves is causally responsible for whether they act, or for which way they decide. Un-predeterminist freedom requires a theory of causation that is not (just) a theory of event-causation (i.e. a theory which considers both causes and effects as events). For instance, un-predeterminist freedom would work with a concept of causality which considers things or objects (material or immaterial) as causes, and events, movements or changes as effects. Such a conception of causation is common in antiquity.
(Phronesis, p.133)

In Bobzien’s “un-predeterminist” freedom, there is nothing that causally determines the agent’s action, but the agent will always make the same decision in exactly the same circumstances, because the decision is completely consistent with the agent’s desires and beliefs (and character and values).

Bobzien’s idea of un-predeterminist freedom is a good fit with two-stage models of free will.

Finally, Bobzien lists three compatibilist freedoms, negative “freedoms from” rather than positive “freedoms to…”

5) freedom from force and compulsion: I am free in my actions/choices in this sense, if I am not externally or internally forced or compelled when I act/choose. This does not preclude that my actions/choices may be fully causally determined by extemal and internal factors.

6) freedom from determination by external causal factors: agents are free from external causal factors in their actions/choices if the same external situation or circumstances will not necessarily always elicit the same (re-)action or choice of different agents, or of the same agent but with different desires or beliefs.

7) freedom from determination by (external and) certain internal causal factors: I am in my actions/choices free from certain intemal factors (e.g. my desires), if having the same such internal factors will not necessarily always elicit in me the same action/choice.
(Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, p.278)

In Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (2000), Bobzien challenged Pamela Huby’s 1967 assertion that Epicurus discovered the “free will problem.”

In 1967 Epicurus was credited with the discovery of the problem of free will and determinism. Among the contestants were Aristotle and the early Stoics.
Furley merely de-emphasized the direct involvement of the random swerve in volition, as had Bailey before him.
Epicurus emerged victorious, because — so the argument went — Aristotle did not yet have the problem, and the Stoics inherited it from Epicurus. In the same year David Furley published his essay ‘Aristotle and Epicurus on Voluntary Action’, in which he argued that Epicurus’ problem was not the free will problem. In the thirty-odd years since then, a lot has been published about Epicurus on freedom and determinism.

But it has only rarely been questioned whether Epicurus, in one way or another, found himself face to face with some version of the free will problem. In this paper I intend to take up the case for those who have questioned the point, combining a fresh perspective on the debate with a selection of new arguments and a detailed textual analysis of the relevant passages. Let me begin with a brief sketch of the problem of freedom and determinism which Epicurus is widely taken to have been concerned with.

The determinism Epicurus defends himself against is usually understood as causal determinism: every event is fully determined in all its details by preceding causes. These causes are commonly pictured as forming an uninterrupted chain or network, reaching back infinitely into the past, and as governed by an all-embracing set of laws of nature, or as manifestations of such a set of laws of nature.

Freedom to do otherwise, freedom of decision, and extreme freedom of the will Bobzien now labels “two-sided” freedom
On the side of freedom, Epicurus is generally understood to have been concerned with freedom of decision (the freedom to decide whether or not to do some action) or freedom of choice (the freedom to choose between doing and not doing some action) or freedom of the will (where the freedom to will to do something entails the freedom to will not to do it, and vice versa; I call this two-sided freedom of the will). Epicurus is taken to have introduced an indeterminist conception of free decision or free choice or two-sided free will: agents are free in this sense only if they are causally undetermined (or not fully causally determined) in their decision whether or not to act or their choice between alternative courses of action; undetermined, that is, by external and internal causal factors alike. There is assumed to be a gap in the causal chain immediately before, or simultaneously with, the decision or choice, a gap which allows the coming into being of a spontaneous motion.
Epicurus did not make actions directly the result of random atomic swerves, and he did think volitions were “up to us.”
In this way every human decision or choice is directly linked with causal indeterminism. The assumption of such indeterminist free decision, free choice, or two-sided free will does not presuppose that one specifies an independent mental faculty, like e.g. a will, and indeed it is not usually assumed that Epicurus’ theory involved such a faculty.

The ‘free will problem’ that Epicurus is assumed to have faced is then roughly as follows: If determinism is true, every decision or choice of an agent between alternative courses of actions is fully determined by preceding causes, and forms part of an uninterrupted causal chain. On the other hand, if an agent has (two-sided) freedom of the will, it seems that the agent’s decision or choice must not be fully determined by preceding causes. Hence, it appears, determinism and freedom of the will (freedom of decision, freedom of choice) are incompatible.

I do not believe that Epicurus ever considered a problem along the lines of the one just described. In particular, I am sceptical about the assumption that he shared in a conception of free decision or free choice akin to the one I have sketched. (I also have my doubts that he ever conceived of a determinism characterized by a comprehensive set of laws of nature; but this is a point I only mention in passing.) To avoid misunderstandings, I should stress that I do believe that Epicurus was an indeterminist of sorts — only that he did not advocate indeterminist free decision or indeterminist free choice.

Bobzien is of course right that Epicurus did not think that our decisions were made at random with no regard for our character and values, or for our feelings and desires. This is a straw argument put up by critics of Epicurean philosophy, notably the Stoic Chryssipus and the Academic Skeptic Cicero.

Epicurus explicitly said human actions are caused by an autonomous agency, a third cause beyond chance and necessity.

But Bobzien is wrong to suggest that Epicurus did not see a problem between human freedom and the causal determinism of his fellow atomist Democritus, and that Epicurus’ atomic swerve was not his proposed solution to that “free will problem (viz, by breaking the causal chain).” Bobzien recognizes that her claim depends on the definiton of free will when she notes that

Whether Epicurus discussed free will depends on what one means by ‘free will’. For example, if one intends ‘free will’ to render Lucretius “libera voluntas,” and to mean whatever element of Epicurus’ doctrine Lucretius meant to capture by this phrase, then Epicurus evidently was concerned with free will. My concern is only to show that he did not discuss a problem of free will that involves a conception of freedom of decision or choice as adumbrated in the main text. [namely, "extreme" libertarianism in which chance is the direct cause of action.]

See our account of free will in antiquity for more details and which ancient philosophers were first to take positions as determinist, libertarian, and compatibilist in antiquity.

Reading Diodorus Cronus

February 27th, 2011

Diodorus Cronus (Διόδωρος Κρόνος, Cronus was a nickname, the old ‘crone’) was a member (or perhaps a late follower) of the Megarian School, whose arguments about the truth and falsity of statements about the future may have influenced Aristotle. But they have certainly influenced modern philosophers who think that philosophical problems can be decided by logic and language games.

Diodorus was known as “The Dialectician,” testimony to his sophistry with words, or for his ability to create paradoxes. Epictetus wrote a diatribe “Against those who embrace philosophical opinions only in words,” in Book 2, Chapter 1, of his Discourses. It is our major reference to Diodorus and his famous Master Argument (the κυριεύων or κύριος λόγος).

Diodorus’ Master Argument is a set of propositions designed to show that the actual is the only possible and that some true statements about the future imply that the future is already determined. This follows logically from his observation that if something in the future is not going to happen, it must have been that statements in the past that it would not happen must have been true.

The Master Argument was central in the Hellenistic debates about determinism, as shown by Cicero’s descriptions in On Fate.

It is closely related to the problem of future contingency, also discussed by Diodorus, but made famous in Aristotle’s example of a Sea-Battle in De Interpretatione 9. Aristotle thought statements about the future lacked any truth value.

Note that the truth value of a statement made in the past can “actually” be changed if an event does or does not happen, showing that the “fixed past” so important in modern free will debates has some changeability.

Diodorus was a great logician and word-juggler. Like Socrates, he wrote little or nothing and preferred verbal debates. The Dialectician was a precursor of the later language game players, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, and Daniel Dennett.

Diodorus applied Democritus’ great insight that much knowledge is pure convention (νόμος), but “in reality” there is only atoms and a void. For him, language definitions were conventional and quite arbitrary. His most famous example was the linguistic puzzle of how to define a “heap” (philosophers call this the Sorites paradox, from Greek σωρείτης so-ri’-tes, meaning “heaped up”). When does a number of grains become a heap? One? No. Two? No. Three? Etc. Or, given a heap of grains, as you take grains away, at which point does it stop being a heap?

Reading Alexander Bain

January 2nd, 2011

Alexander Bain was a Scottish philosopher who influenced the Americans Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Their meetings of the short-lived “Metaphysical Club” in the early 1860’s often included discussions of Bain’s work. Peirce thought the core idea of his new philosophy of pragmatism came from Bain’s definition of a belief as “that upon which a man is prepared to act.”

William James gave “The Will to Believe” agential force in his own version of pragmatism. The “difference between the objects of will and belief is entirely immaterial, as far as the relation of the mind to them goes.” (Principles, vol.2, p.320) “When a thing is such as to make us act on it, then we believe it, according to Bain,” said James (p.322).

In his 1859 book Emotions and the Will, Bain said

It remains to consider the line of demarcation between belief and mere conceptions involving no belief - there being instances where the one seems to shade into the other. It seems to me impossible to draw this line without referring to action, as the only test, and the essential import of the state of conviction even in cases the farthest removed in appearance from any actions of ours, there is no other criterion.
(Emotions and the Will, ch. XI, Liberty and Necessity, sect. 22, p.595)

Bain on Free Will
Bain followed John Locke and considered it absurd to describe the will as “free.” His psychological theory marked the beginning of psychophysical parallelism, and it denied a purely physical or materialist explanation of mind. Knowledge and all mental events flowed from the sensations. So the physical body could generate spontaneous movements, but they could be known to a Laplacian intelligence.

Spontaneity, Self determination. - These names are introduced into the discussion of the will, as aides to the theory of liberty, which they are supposed to elucidate and unfold. That there is such a thing as ’spontaneity,’ in the action of voluntary agents has been seen in the foregoing pages. The spontaneous beginnings of movement are a result of the physical mechanism under the stimulus of nutrition… There is nothing in all this that either takes human actions out of the sweep of law, or renders liberty and necessity appropriate terms of description… The physical, or nutritive, stimulus is a fact of our Constitution, counting at each moment for a certain amount, according to the bodily condition; and if anyone knew exactly the condition of a man or animal in this respect, a correct allowance might be made in the computation of present motives.
(Emotions and the Will, ch. XI, Liberty and Necessity, sect. 7, p.552)

Bain thought that the mind also could generate “outgoing” thoughts and new associations at “random,” but it is likely that his idea of randomness was the prevalent 19th-century view that randomness and chance were just the result of human ignorance and our incapacity to make arbitrarily accurate measurements, following the views of Adolphe Quételet and Henry Thomas Buckle.

When Watt invented his ‘parallel motion’ for the steam engine, his intellect and observation were kept at work, going out in all directions for the change of some suitable combination rising to view; his sense of the precise thing to be done was the constant touchstone of every contrivance occurring to him, and all the successive suggestions were arrested, or repelled, as they came near to, or disagreed with, this touchstone. The attraction and repulsion were purely volitional effects; they were the continuance of the very same energy that, in his babyhood, made him keep his mouth to his mother’s breast widely felt hunger on appeased and withdraw it when satisfied…

No formal resolution of the mind, adopted after consideration or debate, no special intervention of the ‘ego,’ or the personality, is essential to this putting forth of the energy of retaining on the one hand, or repudiating on the other, what is felt to be clearly suitable, or clearly unsuitable, to the feelings or aims of the moment. The inventor sees the incongruity of a proposal, and forth with it vanishes from his view. There may be extraneous considerations happening to keep it up in spite of the volitional stroke of repudiation, but the genuine tendency of the mind is to withdraw all further consideration, on the mere motive of unsuitability; while some other scheme of an opposite nature is, by the same instinct, embraced and held fast.

In all these new constructions, be they mechanical, verbal, scientific, practical, or aesthetical, the outgoings of the mind are necessarily at random; the end alone is the thing that is clear to the view, and with that there is a perception of the fitness of every passing suggestion. The volitional energy keeps up the attention, or the active search, and the moment that anything in point rises before the mind, springs upon that like a wild beast on its prey. I might go through all the varieties of creative effort, detailed under the law of constructive association, but I should only have to repeat the same observation at every turn.
(Emotions and the Will, ch. IV, Control of Feeling and Thoughts, sect. 8, Constructive Association a Voluntary Process, p.413-4)

Among Bain’s many accomplishments was the founding of the influential philosophical journal, Mind, in 1876.

See Alexander Bain on I-Phi

Reading Ernst Cassirer

July 16th, 2010

Ernst Cassirer was a neo-Kantian philosopher who had a great influence on the philosophical implications of quantum physics, by personal contacts with the major quantum physicists, and through his 1936 book Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics. The English translation, published in 1956, was prepared with the help of Henry Margenau, who had studied with Cassirer.
Max Born said it was a satisfaction to him that Cassirer “also sees the philosophical importance of quantum theory not so much in the question of indeterminism but in the possibility of several complementary perspectives in the description of the same phenomena as soon as different standpoints of meaning are taken.”
Arthur Stanley Eddington had associated free decisions with “free” electron jumps, a position he repudiated a few years after Cassirer’s book.
Cassirer attacked this simplistic notion:

When it is said that the electron is bound in no other way than as demanded by these rules, or that it has a certain playground within which it is “free,” this is nothing else and nothing more than a metaphysical mode of expression. From this interpretation of freedom as a mere possibility, bounded by natural laws, there is no path toward that reality of will and decision which concerns ethics. To identify the “selection” (Auswahl) that an electron is able to make from the set of different quantum orbits — in accordance with Bohr’s theory — with “choice” (Wahl) in the ethical sense of that concept would be to succumb to a purely linguistic confusion. For a choice exists only when there are not only different possibilities, but where also a conscious differentiation and a conscious decision is made.

Note that Cassirer is here very close to the idea of the two-stage Cogito model of free will, if he would accept the different possibilities as generated by quantum randomness.
But Cassirer strongly defends determinism (p.203), so doubts that quantum mechanics can help with the problem of free will:

The new mode of determination which is to be established is not built on the ruins of nature’s conformity to law; rather it joins the latter as a correlative and complement. For this reason alone it is most questionable whether, or in what manner, a relaxation or dissolution of scientific determinism can be made useful for the solution of the fundamental problem of ethics.

Cassirer is concerned about the randomness objection in the standard argument against free will
A “freedom” emanating from such a source and based on such a foundation would be a fatal gift to ethics. For it would contradict the characteristic and positive meaning of ethics; it would not leave room for that moral responsibility the possibility and necessity of which ethics aims to prove. Whenever something is “ascribed” to a person in the ethical sense, it presupposes, and is connected with, some type of prior determination on the part of that person. An action which should simply fall out of the causal nexus, which should take place at random without reasons, would stand entirely alone and could not be referred or ascribed to a persisting ethical subject.

Dogmatic fatalism is pre-determinism. Adequate determinism is a critically developed determinism
Only an action “grounded” in some way can be considered a responsible action, and the value ascribed to it depends on the type, on the quality of these grounds and not on their absence. Thus the question of free will cannot and must not be confused with the question of physical indeterminism. The free will whose establishment concerns ethics is incompatible with a dogmatic fatalism; but it is by no means incompatible with a critically conceived and developed determinism.

Henry Margenau on Ernst Cassirer
Margenau was a close colleague, perhaps more a disciple, of Ernst Cassirer and generally claimed to agree with Cassirer’s thoughts on causality and determinism. When Cassirer died, Margenau was preparing an appendix for the 1956 English translation of Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics. The appendix (and a bibliography) was to bring the question of causality up to date as of 1956.

A dozen years later, Margenau was invited to give the Wimmer Lecture at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania. His topic was Scientific Indeterminism and Human Freedom, and instead of holding to Cassirer’s view “that it would be fatal for ethics to tie itself to and, as it were, fling itself into the arms of a limitless indeterminism,” Margenau embraced indeterminism as the first step toward a solution of the problem of human freedom.

Margenau lamented that “it forces us to part company with many distinguished moral philosophers who see the autonomy of ethics threatened when a relation of any sort is assumed to exist between that august discipline and science.” He clearly means his longtime mentor. “Ethics,” says Cassirer, “should not be forced to build its nests in the gaps of physical causation, but he fails to tell where else it should build them, if at all.”
(Scientific Indeterminism and Human Freedom, Wimmer Lecture XX, 1968 (p.71))

Ernst Cassirer on Emil du Bois-Reymond
Cassirer devotes the opening pages of his Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics to the claim that “determinism” in the modern sense of a complete causal physical determinism was not really understood until an essay of du Bois-Reymond in 1872.

This seems completely wrong, but Cassirer was very influential for many modern physicists, insisting on subjective versus objective views (mirroring Neils Bohr’s dualistic complementarity, with its wave versus particle views. Cassirer preserves a spiritual view, similar to Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world view, as the realm of ethics and freedom.

Du Bois-Reymond was quite wrong about determinism, which was equated with necessity in the eighteenth-century debates about freedom versus necessity. He is right that those debates turned into questions of freedom versus determinism in the nineteenth century, but they both assumed there were causal chains that threatened human freedom. See chapter 18 on “Cassirer’s Thesis” in Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance for more.

See Ernst Cassirer on I-Phi