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Posted by on Dec 22, 2013 in Featured, Free Will and Determinism, Morality, Naturalism, Philosophy, Skepticism | 53 comments

Another Tippling Philosopher defends free will… Part 1

There has been a new member of the Tippling Philosophers group to which I attend and I have been involved in some long disputes over the existence or not of free will. This is why my posts have recently been top heavy on the subject. This was the piece he sent to me by way of riposte. This post is about being properly skeptical over such claims of free will.

Now, it is important to note that he is not philosophically trained. I say this by way of explanation, and it goes some way towards explaining why he thinks he has solved the problem which thousands upon thousands of the best philosophers have failed to solve over the history of the debate. Now, that is not to say he is wrong, of course. But that perhaps he should be wary of his position, or at least ready and willing to delve into the philosophers with whom he so fervently disagrees.

Here is his piece, after which I will critique it.

An Essay on Free Will

It is an inescapable fact that man behaves as though he has Free Will. Indeed, he has a fierce instinct that he has this faculty to the extent that most of what he does is predicated on this assumption. He bases his civil society on this assumption, founding moral, legal, judicial and penal systems on the basis of it for millennia in more or less sophisticated forms.

How does one respond to this bare historical fact?

Some will say, as do I, that the above points to the facts that Free Will is the case in the human condition. They will then seek to explain the mechanism of how this works. More of this later.

Some will fly in the face of the above and style it as a delusion from which mankind has been suffering for millennia. These are generally, the determinists/naturalists/physicalists/materialists. They will often style humans as being locked inside chains of causality and the evolutionary process for instance. (Please note – I do not disbelieve in the fact that evolution occurs. I am not a creationist).

Some will feel that they find it impossible to ignore the fierce instinct I mentioned above, whilst, at the same time, embracing the theories of the delusionists. They will say that having your cake is compatible with eating it and will call themselves compatibilists.

This last breed are curious. They will not honestly and comprehensively embrace the idea that we are deluded in our sense of having free will. This is because they have noticed that, in order to debate they have to accord themselves a degree of freedom. Otherwise, everything they have to say can simply be written off as something they have been programmed to say by their genetics etc. Somewhere in their agenda, they have to find a niche where freedom can be secreted. This can result in the most extraordinary examples of mental contortionism. Here are some examples:

Daniel Dennett is a ‘compatibilist’. He wrote a book called ‘Freedom evolves’ and allows ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ to exist in place of Free Will. In the book’s title we see the extraordinary balancing act he is undergoing in his need to accommodate free will within a determinist agenda. In ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ we see Will substituted with ‘volition’ which means exactly the same thing (a latinate word substituted for a teutonic word) and we see reference to moral accountability which must imply Free Will.

Richard Dawkins is a notable anti-super-naturalist. In spite of this he urges us to ‘rebel against the self- replicators’ meaning our genetic predispositions, and manufactures a place where he can be free by talking about our ability and need ‘to transcend ourselves’.

Then there is an experimental psychologist called Steven Pinker who famously stated that ‘my genes can go jump in a lake’. Again, in spite of determinist views, he finds it impossible to exclude the ‘illusion’ that he is free.

And so we see these notable figures finding it imperative to find a location for free will to operate in spite of their main agendas. Now I will offer my explanation of how Free Will operates.

Firstly I will refute the assertion that modal logic makes it a literal impossibility. I have, previously, attacked the syllogism that proposes this at the second link in its chain – ‘There can be no event that does not have an antecedent cause’. In doing this I asked ‘Who says?’ effectively, and, strangely, found myself in the company of Freddie Ayer, who would normally be my opponent. He said ‘Why should every event have an antecedent cause?’ The whole point of the argument, indeed, is that there are events in the human psyche which are ‘free’ in not being subject to an antecedent cause and by being true choices. How can this be?

This is where I bring in super naturalism, super physicalism, super materialism, super evolutionism, super determinism. To explain free will one must posit that a part of who we are inhabits a realm which is super(meaning above or outside) the natural, physical world. In this sense we are, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, ‘amphibious’. We inhabit the physical world and are part of it, but part of us overlaps or protrudes into a realm outside the chains of causality in the physical world. In some manner our person supervenes (I am sure I am misusing that term in modern philosophical parlance but I will coin it for myself using its latin roots which mean ‘comes from above’) onto our physical brain and body. This may sound far-fetched but Dennett, Hawkins and Pinker all feel an imperative to accommodate something of the same shape as this.

Let’s imagine that this kind of idea is true. If it is the Free Will thing falls into place. Gone is the painful contortionism of Dennett, Hawkins and Pinker. We stride about happily making real, morally accountable choices which have significance and are not at odds with ourselves or constantly haunted by the possibility that everything we base our action on is a delusion. Of course, if someone of a scientific, naturalist bent comes along demanding scientific naturalist proof of something which is super (above or outside nature) we can’t give it to him. This isn’t because we are mystifiers or religious obscurantists or something of the kind. It is because the nature of what he is demanding is impossible. We can’t apply callipers to the supernatural but this does not mean its not there. We can deduce its presence even though we can’t touch it or measure it because it makes sense of the otherwise inexplicable experience of the human condition.

We can then say, along with Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio’. We can say this because the philosophical orthodoxies of our day are inadequate to explain our experience. They always end by diminishing that experience or by trying to force it into a restrictive imprisonment.

PS C.S.Lewis and other religious apologists would go further. They would say that God has afforded the privilege and dignity to his creatures of being able to exercise free will along with him and that is what his creation is all about. He has created circumstances I which humans initiate chains of causality and participate in the drama of responsibility. I would not go this far (although I would not go out of my way to refute it). The terminus on my philosophical rail journey is the existence of the super natural.

PPS Quantum Physics certainly does not exclude the possibility of something super natural. When we reach the borders of the physical world we find ourselves in the midst of uncertainty (cf Heisenberg) and scientific measurement seems to break down. It does not prove that the super natural exists but neither does it disprove it.

Having only read the the first paragraph so far, I can see that there might be just a few issues ahead. Watch out, this is a long piece on the first paragraph alone!

“It is an inescapable fact that man behaves as though he has Free Will. Indeed, he has a fierce instinct that he has this faculty to the extent that most of what he does is predicated on this assumption. He bases his civil society on this assumption, founding moral, legal, judicial and penal systems on the basis of it for millennia in more or less sophisticated forms.

How does one respond to this bare historical fact?”

Although I wonder whether one can continually found something for a millennia, if this is a claim that our judicial system is still totally dependent on the idea of free will, I take it you didn’t read one of my posts on that, or have looked at already existent ideas and changes within said system. We already take into account mental disposition, abrogating responsibility in cases mental health issues, accepting that people are driven by certain neural states. But we also look at environmental issues – different understandings and sentences are given for crimes of passion etc.As the Times reported:

Some believe that the link between antisocial behaviour and genes is so strong that genetic information should be accorded the same status as mental illness or an abusive childhood in deciding punishment. In a 2002 report, for example, the influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded that the use of genetic information to help determine custodial sentences (along with other information such as previous convictions) should not be ruled out.[1]


[1] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/genetics/article6919130.ece (01/2010)

The question of the relationship between determinism and free will has long been the subject of major debates within philosophy, psychology and law (McGuire, 2004) with the free will view challenged by psychology’s arguments about voluntary behaviour and control (Carson et al., 2007). The notion that offenders weigh the efforts, rewards and costs of crime denies any role for environment and internal genetic forces in human action (McGuire, 2004). Evidence from twin, adoption and intergenerational criminality studies question the capacity for individuals to freely choose whether or not to engage in criminal behaviour (Carson et al., 2007). While some theorists assert an individual is not a passive reflection of external influences and causal factors (van Duijn & Bem, 2005 cited in Gnomes, 2007), this view overlooks the extent of an individual’s personal constructs through which they interpret and control their world (Gross, 2003). All human behaviour is a result of an interaction between a large number of factors, some of which reside within the individual and some which are found in the external environment (Ainsworth, 2001). Children begin life with certain inherent biological capabilities and predispositions that interact with specific familial, social and cultural circumstances (Andrews & Bonta, 2006). Personal capabilities and predispositions affect how the environment influences the shaping of behaviour and reciprocally the behaviour can modify biological tendencies (Andrews & Bonta, 2006). For example achievements may nourish further biological growth (Beckman, 2004 cited in Andrews & Bonta, 2006). While the scientific community agrees that both heredity and the environment play significant roles in the development of criminal behaviour (Bartol & Bartol, 1986), it is the proposition that behaviour is fully determined by the combination of genetic predisposition, personality and social learning experiences that is the subject of continued debate (Ainsworth, 2001). Scientific analysis of behaviour continues to challenge the legal systems’ assumption of free will (Carson et al., 2007) with the proposition that behaviour is determined becoming more plausible as facts accumulate (Gross, 2003). It seems we cannot choose a way of life in which there is no control.

We can only change the controlling conditions, thus; freedom is never absolute (Gross, 2003).

From Willard Wallace’s 1929 essay (A Deterministic View of Criminal Responsibility):

The determinists are recruited in the main from the social scientists, sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, economists, political scientists, scientific philosophers, and others whose professional habit or natural bent inclines them to apply the scientific method in their thought about mankind. The determinists proceed about their work of collecting, classifying, and interpreting facts about human beings, while the world continues to be administered, for the most part, by the libertarians. But soon or late social practice must come to grips with social theory.

As Part II of this Article demonstrates, despite having endorsed free will, courts and legislatures actually moved to accommodate determinism when it began making incursions into the criminal law in the mid-twentieth century. As a result, by the century’s third quarter, the criminal law had accepted a significant amount of deterministic thinking in virtually every one of the areas in which the issue had arisen: the insanity defense, related and analogous defenses, expert witness testimony on mental state, juvenile justice, and sentence mitigation.

Although it claims that recently it has (in the US) tried to reclaim free will, it advises that the law adopt deterministic ideals.

Basically, there are so many journals, essays, criminal laws and what have you which flatly contest your opening paragraph alone, that I relish getting stuck in!

Just a simple search on Google Scholar turns up 43,400 results for determinism and criminal law!

http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&q=determinism+criminal+law&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=

Look, for most philosophers, the free will question is no longer up for grabs. What IS fascinating, and what people now debate, is neuroethics (which is a discipline with its own journals) and what do we do with criminality and moral responsibility under determinism. This is where philosophers are at.

This next quote is part of a fascinating essay. This compatibilist essay on the growing determinism in law (warning, most of essay posted!) shows that determinism IS a growing consideration of lawmakers. What is also vital to understand is that psychologists are themselves implicitly deterministic. This means they look for causal drivers within our psyche to explain our behaviours. This is crucial. Psychologists are integral to the legal system, and to courts. I have a fascinating book called Are We Free?, a collection of essays on free will by psychologists. It opens up by saying that free will is the elephant in the room for psychologists – they just don’t talk about it, because it plays no pragmatic role, one presumes, in their discipline. Anyway, this part of the essay is useful:

 It seems that the criminal justice system has adjusted accordingly in introducing deterministic defences, ranging from ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ (NGRI), to the more recent ‘extreme emotional disturbance’ (EED) defence… It appears, therefore, that the criminal justice system is built on compatibility and can maintain this compatibility in what is officially becoming a deterministic universe.

Morse (2007) distinguishes between an internal and external critique in considering the relation of any variable to an institution, practice or set of doctrines.  In the case of free will, psychology and the law, an external argument, for example, uses free will to demonstrate that the concept of criminal responsibility is incoherent or unjustifiable and thus it should be abandoned (Morse, 2007)… Morse (2007) also suggests that compatibilism, provides a secure foundation for current practice and renders it immune to the potentially devastating challenge of the external critique.

Although the presupposition of free will is a functional requirement of this trade, the law has in fact acknowledged causal determination, including environmental determinism, for decades.  Being judged to have lost control that is perceived as a major feature of normality (‘being of sound mind’) either temporarily or permanently, is a legally acceptable defence in cases of criminal offences (Gross, 2009).  This was initiated by The McNaughton Rules (named after Daniel McNaughton 1843, who, having suffered delusions for years, shot and killed Edward Drummond, private secretary to the then Prime minister) which produced the familiar verdict ‘Not guilty by reason of insanity’.  This was largely replaced, however, by the defence of diminished responsibility (for murder) as the McNaughton rules were considered to present far too narrow a concept of insanity (Gross, 2009).  Since this was introduced in 1957, the ‘deterministic’ defences in the criminal justice system have evolved considerably, to include the ‘heat of passion’ defence (namely, provocation) and the extreme emotional disturbance defence, which allows the defendant to show that his actions were caused by a mental infirmity not arising to the level of insanity, and that he is less blameworthy for having committed them.  It is worth noting that the extreme emotional disturbance defence was formulated by the Model Penal Code in 1980, in response to some problems that were being perceived with both provocation and diminished responsibility.  This is significant as it shows that even though the judicial system has always assumed free will, it does not relinquish faith in causal determinism and is adjusting accordingly.

It is worth elaborating on the defence of extreme emotional disturbance (EED), as it is a prime example of how the criminal justice system is adapting in a deterministic universe.  Galperin, Kirschner, and Litwack (2004) analyzed cases of all defendants pleading the partial, mitigating defense of EED to charges of intentional murder or attemped intentional murder in New York County over a 10-year period (1988-1997).  The cases were analyzed to determine what factors distinguished the cases that resulted in a verdict or accepted plea of manslaughter or attempted manslaughter from those cases in which the defendant was found guilty, or ultimately pleaded guilty to, the ultimate charge of murder or attempted murder.  The authors found that jurors, judges, and prosecutors were much more likely to accept a defence of EED when the defendant’s homicidal behaviour was motivated significantly by an understandable fear that he or a loved one would be physically harmed by the victim than when the defendant acted out of anger without fear of physical harm (Galperin et al., 2004).  Similarly, Finkel (1995, as cited in Galperin et al., 2004) found that when mock jurors were confronted with a wide array of scenarios related to the defence of EED or both, jurors were more likely to impose lighter sentences on defendants who killed because of fear, rather than anger.  It is evident that an EED claim was not accepted simply due to the defendant acting under strong emotions (such as anger), rather the reasonableness of the emotions were evaluated according to the circumstances (Kirschner et al., 2004).  These findings are reassuring in that they defy the threat that determinism will exonerate all wrong-doers in society.  In reference to Bargh and Chartrand’s (1999, as cited in Smith)  theory of environmental determinism previously mentioned, the evolution of the EED defence is again somewhat of a reassurance.  As pointed out by Smith (2006) , it was feared that such theories of environmental determinism, which claim rage as being determined by the environment, would exonerate offending behaviour.  Again, these data suggests that juries would evaluate the reasonableness of the emotions according to the circumstances.

Morse (2007) on the other hand, admits that there is a problem of free will, but it is not present in forensic psychology as the law’s general criteria for responsibility or excuse does not refer to free will or its absence. The emphasis is placed, rather, on a person’s capability of exercising a general capacity of rationality and a lack of that capacity being the primary excusing condition.  Despite the prevalent belief amongst practising lawyers and forensic psychologists that lack of free will is what justifies application of mental health laws generally and in specific cases, Morse (2007) insists that they are wrong, that lack of free will is not a mental health law criterion.  A ‘hard’ determinist’s interpretation in relation to a mentally ill offender would be that the offending behaviour was caused by the mental disorder.  However, Morse (2007) maintains that, in the legal realm, the causal criterion does not imply that the offending behaviour is simply a mechanical product of the mental disorder.  Essentially, it means that the mental disorder undermined the agent’s capacity for rationality in that particular context or, much less frequently, that it placed the agent in a perceived hard choice situation. Although Morse (2007) emphasises the ‘non-problem of free will’ in the courts and in forensic psychology, he is an obvious advocate of compatibilism, maintaining that our positive doctrines of responsibility are fully consistent with determinism. For example, it is indisputable that human beings have different capacities for rationality in both general and specific situations.  This is precisely why a small child would not be condemned in the same sense as an adult if they committed the same crime.  The argument continues is stating that even if determinism is true, differences in rational capacity and its effects are real.  Morse (2007) contends that all forensic psychologists should avoid all mention of free will in their reports, testimony and scholarship as it is the capacity for rationality that is the general responsibility criterion and free will ‘never clarify any legal issue or help resolve any legal case’ (pp. 220).  However, it appears that the link between rationality and free will was noted by Searle (2001, as cited in Baumeister, 2008) who stated that theories of rationality almost inevitably presuppose some degree of free will.  This point is not intended to contradict Morse’s argument of the ‘non-problem’ of free will in forensic psychology. Rather, it lends weight to the argument of compatibility.  If rationality and determinism are so compatible in the criminal justice system, free will and determinism must also be compatible to some degree.

The fear that psychology’s somewhat new emphasis on biological determinism may threaten our criminal justice system is voiced by Pinker (2008) who maintains that advances in biology would seem to admit more and more people into blamelessness.  If psychology as a science continues in its claim that there is no ghost in the machine, than something in a criminal’s hardware must set him apart from the majority of people, those who would not kill or hurt in the same circumstances (Pinker, 2008). This is reflected in the occasional tendency of cognitive neuroscientists being approached by criminal defence lawyers, hoping that an unruly pixel on a brain scan might exonerate their client.  If this trend continues, biological determinism may excuse murders from criminal punishment, just as we excuse the insane and small children. This fear is reiterated by Cashmore (2010), who maintains that it will become increasingly difficult to entertain the fallacy of free will, now that we have made a significant advance in our understanding of the molecular basis of human behaviour, and Greene and Cohen (2004), who warn that our emerging understanding of the physical causes of human (mis) behaviour will have a transformative effect on the law.

Indeed, it is predicted that the criminal justice system will become more and more susceptible to the onslaught of biological determinism.  Greene and Cohen (2004) maintain however, that neuroscience changes nothing.  This leads back to Morse’s (2007) point that the law assumes people have a general capacity for rational choice.  Another paper of Stephen Morse (2004) ‘New neuroscience, old problems’ argues that the law does not care if people have ‘free will’ in any deep metaphysical sense.  It is based on an assumption that people in general are minimally rational.  As long as this appears to be the case, it can continue in regarding people as free (compatibilism) while holding ordinary people responsible for their offending behaviours and making exceptions for those who fail to comply with the requirements of general rationality.  Thus the revelations of Libet’s (as cited in Gross, 2009) and others experiments that elucidates the ‘when’. ‘where’ and ‘how’ of the mechanisms that govern human behaviour will not change the law’s approach to human behaviour unless it shows that the offender in question failed to meet the law’s very minimal requirements for rationality.

Cashmore (2010) maintains that as the concept of free will is increasingly seen as an illusion, the fallacy of a basic premise of the criminal justice system will become more apparent.  The author proposes that now is an opportune time for society to re-evaluate our thinking concerning the policies of the criminal justice system. Yet, as discussed, it seems that the policies of the criminal justice system have been and are being re-evaluated in order to allow for deterministic defences, while maintaining a pre-supposition of the freedom of will.  In other words, the criminal justice system epitomises compatibilism.  Philosophically and psychologically speaking, the criminal justice system is somewhat microcosmic of the universe.  Both are vast, complex systems revolving around the behaviours, emotions, relations and general lives of individuals.  The fact that the criminal justice system has been thus far successful in adapting to determinism lends weight to the argument that free will is coherent in a deterministic world.

So, the TPer continues:

Some will say, as do I, that the above points to the facts that Free Will is the case in the human condition. They will then seek to explain the mechanism of how this works. More of this later.

Er, facts of free will based on the above points? Hardly, the above points were erroneous assertions which amount to “I feel like I have free will, and it is useful to society, therefore it exists”. No.

Some will fly in the face of the above and style it as a delusion from which mankind has been suffering for millennia. These are generally, the determinists/naturalists/physicalists/materialists. They will often style humans as being locked inside chains of causality and the evolutionary process for instance. (Please note – I do not disbelieve in the fact that evolution occurs. I am not a creationist).

Now here comes a big problem. He states that he believes in evolution and then states, later, that he believes in supernaturalism and this supernaturalism-of-the-gaps gets him free will. However, this is acceptance that we share common ancestors with, well, all other animals. This means that, given that they do not have this supernaturalist consciousness, it must have evolved from physical parts at some point in hominid history. By believing in evolution, one is adhering to the notion that we are physical entities which have physically evolved from other physical beings. Now, I would say there is a range of simple to complex consciousnesses which come out of a range of simple to complex brains and brain states. These other less free beings, situation-action machines, if you will, who adhere to input-output behaviour, gave rise to us. But somehow, due to supernaturalism, we bypass the input-output scenario. This metaphysical ideal is suddenly smashed to pieces. But how and on what basis can this be claimed? We are merely more complex versions of other primates, if you will. Unless his supernaturalism is actually a naive understanding of emergent properties, then I think the account is incoherent.

Some will feel that they find it impossible to ignore the fierce instinct I mentioned above, whilst, at the same time, embracing the theories of the delusionists. They will say that having your cake is compatible with eating it and will call themselves compatibilists.

This last breed are curious. They will not honestly and comprehensively embrace the idea that we are deluded in our sense of having free will. This is because they have noticed that, in order to debate they have to accord themselves a degree of freedom. Otherwise, everything they have to say can simply be written off as something they have been programmed to say by their genetics etc. Somewhere in their agenda, they have to find a niche where freedom can be secreted. This can result in the most extraordinary examples of mental contortionism.

I think this is again naive. Although there can sometimes be a case that compatibilists, as I claimed in Free Will? (available form the sidebar), set out to defend their moral philosophy, which they see as holding primacy, and massage their free will/determinism ideals around that.

But what seems to be the case much of the time is that compatibilists accept determinism (hence it being called soft determinism) and then redefine free will to fit around that, in the same way that the second law of thermodynamics was redefined to fit new knowledge. What takes primacy here is the idea of determinism. Thus most philosophers are beyond bothering whether we could have done otherwise in a given situation, and are more concerned with what this then entails. Do we have moral responsibility and agency? How about crime and punishment?

Daniel Dennett is a ‘compatibilist’. He wrote a book called ‘Freedom evolves’ and allows ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ to exist in place of Free Will. In the book’s title we see the extraordinary balancing act he is undergoing in his need to accommodate free will within a determinist agenda. In ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ we see Will substituted with ‘volition’ which means exactly the same thing (a latinate word substituted for a teutonic word) and we see reference to moral accountability which must imply Free Will.

I am not sure he has read the book. Might be an idea. And in philosophy free will does not mean the same as volition. There is definitely equivocation of terms going on here. Who cares what the Latin states. Meaning and representation are not defined by what ancient peoples understood of the word. Most of our scientific words came from Greek and Latin, but are clearly millennia of knowledge away from their original cognates! The TPer here simply starts equivocating on the term free will since he drops the free part, building up a kind of straw man. As this commentator states:

In philosophy and theology, the terms free will and volition are often NOT used synonymously, but do convey related ideas.  Unless misused, the term free will communicates a sense of absolute, autonomous, ‘libertarian’ or unbounded freedom, whereas volition simply implies power of choice.

And:

It is necessary to form a distinct notion of what is meant by the word “volition” in order to understand the import of the word will, for this last word expresses the power of mind of which “volition” is the act. -Dugald Stewart.

And:

Will is an ambiguous word, being sometimes put for the faculty of willing; sometimes for the act of that faculty, besides [having] other meanings. But “volition” always signifies the act of willing, and nothing else. -Thomas Reid.

So even the basic terms will and volition, without the free, can be defined differently. Although it is a common mistake to conflate the two. The claim from the TPer that “moral accountability… must imply free will” is entirely dubious. This is exactly the battleground of philosophers in the discipline. To just assert that offhand is problematic to say the least. There is so much assertion going on here, it hurts.

Then there is an experimental psychologist called Steven Pinker who famously stated that ‘my genes can go jump in a lake’. Again, in spite of determinist views, he finds it impossible to exclude the ‘illusion’ that he is free.

Pinker is a determinist. So is Dawkins. I think the TPer here needs to understand the difference between hardwired behaviour and softwired behaviour (gene-environment interaction).

Not sure what he is really saying about the truth or falsity of free will by stating these points.

And so we see these notable figures finding it imperative to find a location for free will to operate in spite of their main agendas. Now I will offer my explanation of how Free Will operates.

Eh? Do they? Has he read Pinker’s How The Mind Works? Let’s let Pinker talk for himself:

“Why is the notion of free will so closely tied to the notion of responsibility, and why is biology thought to threaten both? Here is the logic. We blame people for an evil act or bad decision only when they intended the consequences and could have chosen otherwise. We don’t convict a hunter who shoots a friend he has mistaken for a deer, or the chauffeur who drove John F. Kennedy into the line of fire, because they could not foresee and did not intend the outcome of their actions. We show mercy to the victim of torture who betrays a comrade, to a delirious patient who lashes out at a nurse, or to a madman who strikes someone he believes to be a ferocious animal. We don’t put a small child on trial if he causes a death, nor do we try an animal or an inanimate object, because we believe them to be constitutionally incapable of making an informed choice.

“A biology of human nature would seem to admit more and more people into the ranks of the blameless. A murderer [might have] a shrunken amygdala or a hypo-metabolism in his frontal lobes. . . . Even worse, biology may show that we are all blameless. Evolutionary theory says that the ultimate rationale for our motives is that they perpetuated our ancestors’ genes in the environment in which they evolved. Since none of us are aware of that rationale, none of us can be blamed for pursuing it, any more than we blame the mental patient who thinks he is subduing a mad dog but really is attacking a nurse. . . . Should we go even farther than the National Rifle Association bumper sticker–GUNS DON’T KILL; PEOPLE KILL–and say that not even people kill, because people are just as mechanical as guns? . . . .

“People who hope that a ban on biological explanations might restore personal responsibility are in for the biggest disappointment of all. The most risible pretexts for bad behavior in recent decades have come not from biological determinism, but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics. . . .

“Something has gone terribly wrong. It is a confusion of explanationwith exculpation. Contrary to what is implied by critics of biological and environmental theories of the causes of behavior, to explain behavior is not to exonerate the behaver. . . . The difference betweenexplaining behavior and excusing it is captured in the saying “To understand is not to forgive,” and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre. Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull. . . . As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘ I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. . . . the law must keep its promises’. ” (Steven Pinker,”The Fear of Determinism,” in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Nature. NY: Vintage, 2002.)

This will do for now. I will return to this in the second post, where I will continue to critique his position and claims.

  • Guy

    Jonno ends his response to my essay (above) with this quotation from Steven Pinker.

    “People who hope that a ban on biological explanations might restore personal responsibility are in for the biggest disappointment of all. The most risible pretexts for bad behavior in recent decades have come not from biological determinism, but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics. . . .
    “Something has gone terribly wrong. It is a confusion of explanationwith exculpation. Contrary to what is implied by critics of biological and environmental theories of the causes of behavior, to explain behavior is not to exonerate the behaver. . . . The difference betweenexplaining behavior and excusing it is captured in the saying “To understand is not to forgive,” and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre. Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull. . . . As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘ I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. . . . the law must keep its promises’. ” (Steven Pinker,”The Fear of Determinism,” in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Nature. NY: Vintage, 2002.)
    Perhaps I’m being obtuse, but the piece seems to restate almost exactly my previous email on the freely willed responsibility of the Woolwich massacrers.

    ‘Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced …..we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen’

    Exactly! What’s the problem? Pinker and I are in total agreement. He goes on to say ‘even if they were caused by events inside his skull’. If the guy is held to account as having ‘chosen freely’ what is the value of saying his actions were caused by events in his skull. This statement has no practical application in the real world and, so, is worthless. Pinker has not addressed the problem I thought we were all dealing with. How is it that, in spite of ‘the events in our head’ (biological determinism) and, ‘the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics’ (environmetal determinism) we obviously do have free will, as is evidenced by the fact that we are held accountable. The ‘amphibiousness’ I mention in my essay explains this. Pinker and others side-step the conundrum.

    As for Wendell’s comment, assuming he is anti the free will agenda, he simply sounds callous. He tells the man ‘You couldn’t help it but we’re going to slaughter you anyway pour encourager les autres’. This is worse than the free willer who punishes him because he believes he can help it or choose not to do it, in spite of his genetic predispositions etc.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Guy – does that make you a compatibilist who denies the ability to choose otherwise as Pinker?

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Make sure you watch the short video!

      • Guy

        To answer your last two posts. I watched the video and saw Pinker stating as bare fact that there is no Ghost in the Machine. We simply have to accept that dry assertion because he said it – presumably because he’s a scientist and we all accord reverence to scientists. I’m afraid I’m rather irreverent about these people. They do their best to understand an endlessly complex and marvellous universe and project a dome of light into the darkness but leave much uncomprehended. As I stated elsewhere recently, if there was a ghost in the machine, the scientist’s callipers would not be able to measure it.
        Am I a compatibilist? I’m going to take ‘compatible’ in the workaday sense of the layman. Free will occurs in humans which are also made up of meat, blood, fat and water. Thus Free Will is ‘compatible’ with our physical natures.
        If that makes me a ‘compatibilist’ then that’s what I am, but I suspect you mean something different by the term. I don’t deny the ability to do otherwise so perhaps I differ from Pinker. The ability to do otherwise is practically the definition of Free Will.
        BTW – when you say that if someone acts in a particular way it excludes the possibility of having acted otherwise, aren’t you merely stating the obvious and saying something that has no practical value? It actually has no bearing on the question of free choice. Perhaps you’re confusing the ability to ‘do’ otherwise (obviously one act excludes the other) and the ability to ‘choose’ otherwise in a realm of freedom?

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          You don’t have to accept that as dry assertion. You can read any number of his books. I would start with How The Mind Works, but it is a big old book with very small writing (it took me ages!).

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          “BTW – when you say that if someone acts in a particular way it excludes the possibility of having acted otherwise, aren’t you merely stating the obvious and saying something that has no practical value? It actually has no bearing on the question of free choice. Perhaps you’re confusing the ability to ‘do’ otherwise (obviously one act excludes the other) and the ability to ‘choose’ otherwise in a realm of freedom?”

          This appears to be a huge (and welcome) change in your approach. If you are a compatibilist, then you accept determinism. It is then about giving a coherent definition of free will.

          Perhaps this is obvious – it is certainly obvious to me!

          However, if one cannot do otherwise, then the very first thing to go is a judgemental god!

          • Guy Walker

            No, no change. I’m just saying that if I hit the blue snooker ball I can’t simultaneously hit the red one. This is to state the obvious and to bring nothing of value to the debate. It has nothing to do with free will. Who mentioned a judgemental God? And finally I’m only a compatibilist in the sense that I described, certainly not in the proper nomenclature that you use.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            but that is to deny the principle of alternate possibilities – that one cannot to /a and not A in the same situation. Thus in what sense is your choice free?

  • mikespeir

    I feel his pain. Indeed, I do have an intuitive sense of free will. I do wonder how I can even engage in debate on the subect, or any other, without it. Still, it doesn’t seem to wash on any evidence other than intuition. Positing the supernatural doesn’t, to me, solve the problem. It only delays an answer. What is the free will mechanism in the supernatural realm? Until that can be explained there really is no explanation.

    Furthermore, he seems to be introducing more into the discussion than he would like for us to see; that is, that whatever might account for free will, providing we do have it, would qualify as “the supernatural.” And from “the supernatural” we’re naturally expected to be led along by the noses to “the place of spiritual beings,” and thence, of course, to “God.” I’m balking a bit at that. In fact, there might be a perfectly plausible, naturalistic way to account for free will, one we simply haven’t stumbled onto yet.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the comment, Mike.

      It does smack of the supernaturalism of the gaps, without really doing any legwork, and certainly not doing anything to explain the existence of all of the deterministic evidence – psychology, neuroscience, behaviourism etc.

    • Guy Walker

      Hi Mike. Welcome to the debate. I love your third sentence.

      As for ‘What is the free will mechanism in the supernatural realm? Until that can be explained there really is no explanation.’ Imagine that it was the case that we are amphibious and exist simultaneously in the natural and super natural realms. What kind of evidence would you be expecting to prove the functioning of a mechanism in that realm? Some scientific measurements of the kind made in the natural world? It would be a bit like asking vole to prove that there were neurones firing off in its brain.

      Finally, rest assured, I have no agenda whereby I wish to lead you anywhere by the nose. I’m happy to stop at the existence of the super natural, which I deduce, must exist in order for what I experience in terms of daily exercising free will, to take place.

      • Guy Walker

        One other thing. I’m not in pain.

        • mikespeir

          This “what kind of evidence” question usually seems like something of a cop-out to me. Maybe there isn’t any that would be convincing. So what?

      • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

        But that has as much explanatory value and coherence as saying “We also live in the chgfdbaoih dimension”.
        “What is that?”
        “I can’t tell you what it is, only what it isn’t”
        “What evidence do you have for it?”
        “Well, what would you expect? There CAN be no evidence of it in the physical dimension we live in here.”
        And so on.
        However, there MUST be evidence in this universe, since you are claiming interactionism. The supernatural realm apparently causally interacts, no dictates to, the naturalist realm.
        So there actually must be evidence in some shape,

        • Guy Walker

          Now that’s interesting! You’re moving onto my ground. There is evidence. Before 2008 a new breed of Maths students out of American Economics faculties believed they had discovered formulae that could encapsulate the markets and so make their users a lot of money. They didn’t bargain for human nature as it expresses itself through ‘free’ markets. After a lot of white swans, along came a black swan and the banking crisis destroyed the world’s economy. Not for the first time. There had been financial ‘bubbles’ throughout history. Now mathematicians realise that markets cannot be contained or defined within formulae. The move has now been towards chaos theory and game theory in an attempt to take the free in human nature into account. Human nature is free and unpredictable- you’d say ‘random’ in bald mathematical terms but, of course, maths can’t express all that human nature is. The unpredictability of what humans will choose comes to bear on all spheres of human life, history etc. Everything that has happened in human history is ‘evidence’ of the causal interaction of humans from the supernatural to the natural spheres. The fact that the Government and security services did not predict and, therefore, prevent the actions of the Woolwich mujahaddin, in spite of the fact that they were on the radar, is a recent example.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            No, that is evidence of 7 billion exceptionally complex machines interacting not only with each other but every aspect of the world. Each one of those 7 billion have billions of neurons and trillions of synapses as well as tens of thousands of genes.
            The complexity is staggering.
            Not sure how this is evidence for supernaturalism!

          • Guy Walker

            You are describing the complicated nature of computers and human brains. This is different from the complexity of the interaction between the brain and the ghost in the machine. Complication and complexity are different concepts. Also your Neuroscientific position explains the failure of the security services and the economists in terms of suggesting human activity is random. I thought random was a bad word for you.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Er wat? How is my position pseudoscientific? How is yours not?

            My position is entirely scientific!t

          • Guy

            Sorry, some kind of predictive text on my Kindle typed pseudoscientific. I intended neuroscientific. I have edited it correctly above.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Chaos theory does not say it is random, as mentioned in an earlier email, but that it is deterministic and so incredibly complex as to be unpredict-able. If humans and their computers were clever enough, then we could predict such complex systems. This is where weather is at at the moment. It is a chaotic system, but e are becoming marginally better at predicting it.
            Interestingly, there is an interesting debate as to whether economics is a science (this came up at my last talk at Soton uni). The idea is that economics is so complex – the variables so wide ranging – that one cannot easily test it, or take findings and apply them to future scenarios – one outcome in one scenario is far from guaranteed at succeeding in a similar ‘scenario’).
            In other words, one must definitely not confuse complex with random.

          • Guy Walker

            I am not saying the financial markets are random. I am saying they constantly surprise the predictors because human free will is in the mix.
            Also the opposition I mentioned is not complex v random but complex (the whole human including the brain and the ghost) versus complicated (the brain and the computer).

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            I don’t know any economist or similar who would claim the unpredictability is down to free will. It is unknown variables. see here for an example of the application of deterministic chaos to economics.

            http://ducksandeconomics.com/2010/04/29/chaos-theory-and-economics/

            http://www.spygun.com/richard-ruzyllo/economic-chaos

            http://economics.sas.upenn.edu/sites/economics.sas.upenn.edu/files/02-02.pdf

            http://www.fdavidpeat.com/bibliography/essays/chaos.htm

            It is easy to assert stuff, but you will need to back it up with more than assertion.

          • Guy Walker

            Markets are composed of people. You say that deterministic chaos passes through people, I say decisions pass through people. It’s hard to deny that in reality. I also do not accept your method of arguing ie assertion and quotation of various scientific websites to prove it ‘right’. That doesn’t do it for me. I argue independently. If, in your view, that discounts me as a debater then cease the debate with me because I’m not worth it. Your quotations tend to be from people with purely scientific worldviews. The debate is about whether there is more than that which science addresses. I know that not to be in awe of science is considered heretical but there you go!

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Are you an economist?
            If not, do you think you should at least pay some attention to what some experts in that field say about their own field? Or do you take your position of relative ignorance in their field to be better equipped to make judgment on their field?
            You are also painting yourself into an unfalsifiable position:
            People cannot defer to experts – expert witnesses are worth nothing, apparently. Independent attestation to our points are not warranted.
            Instead, it appears, you demand adherence to your own unsupported assertions.
            Tell me, why should I believe you over the people in those articles? Let’s think about this epistemologically. You need to be convincing me. What makes your position more believable than people who devote their lives to studying the disciplines you bring into play?

          • Guy Walker

            On this basis, why are you debating with me at all? You suggest above that little that I say should be taken seriously. You suggest that no layman has anything worthwhile to say and, discussion is the domain of a professional class (interesting) and that participation in the human condition does not qualify one to make worthwhile comment. That being the case, what is my role here? Are you according me the respect of being a genuine interlocutor whose opinions have value, or am I a skittle you feel you are setting up to knock down (by your own lights). Pray tell.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Guy, I debate you because I enjoy it (and often feel compelled).
            What I m saying here, and I think you miss the point a little, is that laymen have a lot to offer, but they are ill-advised to ignore the proclamations of experts on subjects about which they are not wholly knowledgeable. We are both laymen on economics to some degree, I wager (though I do possess qualifications in it).
            There is a sense that you wilfully ignore citations or positions of experts, claiming you are independent, and that that is somehow a good thing by default. It is not. A good point is a good point, and good points are usually well-defended (though not always).
            You seem to think I am merely asserting things. But what is odd that I defend all my points with empirical evidence. or theoretical evidence from other source. This shows a) it is not just me who thinks it is reasonable b) experts in the particular field adopt the same view as me c) there is (depending on the subject) empirical evidence to support my view.
            What I see from you IS mere assertion. TO make such independent claims persuasive, there would have to be some depth to your explanation.
            Again, what would make your claims more persuasive and plausible than, say in this case, actual economists on the subject? I ask this in proper interest as to your answer.
            Cheers
            JP

          • Guy Walker

            I am glad you have a proper interest in what I have to say. I had assumed that was the case. What is at stake here is the methodology of debate. The methodology of the debate has something to say about the content of the debate. I am baulking at your methodology because it restricts the very content of the debate. You make an assertion and then support it with science. If I continue to contest at this point you are literally incomprehending because you feel that science or your scientific brand of philosophy has annexed all knowledge and the whole universe. That being the case, this scientific hegemony will literally not allow contradiction. This is why I vex you so. You, knowingly or otherwise, embrace scientism. I do not. To support me I will now offer you a link

            newrepublic.com/article/washington-diarist/magazine/98566/science-atheism-meaning-life

            I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

  • labreuer

    How does one’s stance on libertarianism vs. compatibilism affect one’s view of human nature, human responsibility, human potential, etc.? I was glad to see the practical application of criminal law; without a way for LFW to contrast with CFW in reality, the discussion often hares off into the jungle.

    On the one hand, I want to acknowledge Jonathan’s point that criminal punishment/rehabilitation has been increasingly taking into account that culpability ought not always lie solely on the perpetrator. I personally believe that we blame too much on many of the school shooters in the US, forgetting that society had a role to play as well, that society is to some extent culpable in many of the cases. To the extent that we don’t treat members of society with respect, I think we ought to expect a small number of those people to violently react. I don’t want to say that mental illness never plays a role, but I refuse to say it is always the sole culprit. This merely shuns responsibility for treating other human beings like shit.

    On the other hand, we cannot always blame everything on the nebulous ‘environment’, can we? When do we blame the individual? To the extent that we blame the individual, I think we allow a ‘pocket’ of something very LFW-like. Note that, perhaps ironically, we should subtract someone’s genetic predisposition from his/her culpability (as well as praise when the individual does praiseworthy things!). The question seems to be something along the lines of, “What have you chosen to do with what you were given?” Here we see the non-individually-determined aspects (“what you were given”) distinguished from the individually-determined aspects (“What have you chosen“).

    I get the sense that no matter how much ‘structure’ exists, which predisposes people and society to act in certain ways, there is always the option to grow it and/or change it. But is this ‘option’ merely a guaranteed next evolutionary step of the structure? Or is there some ‘free’ element to this, some option to create, perhaps opposing what has existed so far?

    I can’t help but think that CFW is a giant justification for why things are as they are, and why they couldn’t be any different. “The environment made me the way I am; I couldn’t have chosen differently!” I can’t help but think that somehow this reduces the dignity of human beings. If LFW is true, claiming CFW is a way to abdicate responsibility. The result is that things are not made ‘better’. After all, my genes and my environment made me what I am.

    • Guy Walker

      Yes, labreuer, the non LFWers always find those pockets allowing them to have their cake and eat it. I really like your ‘What you have chosen to do with what you were given’ I believe Jonno Pearce quoted Nehru saying something similar in his book ‘Free Will’.
      On the subject of Columbine type shootings in the US: saying that the US gunlaws are ridiculous, lead to this sort of thing and need changing is certainly to comment on the environment of the perpetrators. It is not, though, to exonerate them from responsibility for what they freely chose to do with what they were given. Thousands, perhaps millions of others did not do the same thing.
      And finally I wholeheartedly endorse your linking of free will to human dignity. In many ways it defines it by conferring the nobility of responsibility on us.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

        On the Columbine shootings, one has to imagine if you were atom for atom, minute to minute identical to those children, in those identical situations, whether you would have acted differently. In other words, had you BEEN them, what would have grounded your decision to have done differently (and would that invalidate you from actually being them etc).

      • labreuer

        I’m not sure how what I described is “having your cake and eating it”. I also don’t see the Nehru quotation; could you point it out? I can’t find it on Jonathan’s blog.

        On school shootings: thousands or millions may not have done the same thing, but why does that matter? Change the circumstances just enough, and you’ll discover superfluidic helium. Or change the circumstances just enough, and you’ll statistically push someone over the edge. Whose fault is it when some particular person is pushed over the edge? If one in ten thousand people with murderous thoughts act on them, does this mean that the others did nothing wrong? I’m not sure I’m advocating any particular position here; instead I’m just exploring some of the consequences of the kind of argument Jonathan is making.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Lab, as with Guy, much of what you say says nothing about the truth of LFW/determinism. We must be wary of conflating what we desire with what is evidenced. I am still confused as to your position and if you do believe in LFW, whether that is the ability to do otherwise, and how you logically see this.

      “I can’t help but think that CFW is a giant justification for why things are as they are, and why they couldn’t be any different.”

      No, explanation. Justification requires setting out a moral philosophy.

      • labreuer

        I am still confused as to your position and if you do believe in LFW, whether that is the ability to do otherwise, and how you logically see this.

        I’m not sure I can come to a stance on LFW vs. CFW without seeing the consequences of them in how we think about reality and how we treat people. I think I understand the argument against LFW, but it seems to hinge on a specific definition of intelligence and consciousness that I find suspicious. This is largely an intuition; I expect that it will more easily be teased out by talking about LFW vs. CFW in practice, instead of on a theoretical level.

        I don’t know how one has “the ability to do otherwise”. But must I? I also don’t know precisely how consciousness works, and yet I can take advantage of it. Plenty of people don’t know how their computers work, and yet can use them. What I like to do is explore the consequences of saying one did, or did not have “the ability to do otherwise”. And as I mentioned, this doesn’t have to be a 0 or a 1. I doubt there is a specific point in a person’s life where he/she goes from being completely inculpable of murder to utterly culpable of murder. For example, I might say that the culpability gradually shifts from parent to child as the child grows up.

        No, explanation. Justification requires setting out a moral philosophy.

        I’m even skeptical of it being a good ‘explanation’. Such an explanation is an implicit denial that there was the “the ability to do otherwise”. It seems like an almost infinite regress of buck-passing, all the way back to God or randomness.

        I am tempted to say that the belief that there was no “ability to do otherwise” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that behavior might differ between belief in said ability, and denial of said ability. I return to the need to talk about what happens when the rubber hits the road. I know that believing something doesn’t make it true, but I also know that science would not have been possible if people did not sufficiently believe in the lawfulness of reality.

        • Guy Walker

          ‘Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism- the way you play it is free will’ Nehru (not Pandit I think) quoted by JP as a chapter heading in his book ‘Free Will’ not on his website.
          I directed ‘having your cake and eating it’ at Non- LFWers and CFWers, not at you Labreuer. I think that was clear in my post.
          For me the atom for atom (a poor Judge would have to actually be Laplace’s Demon before he could pass sentence), how could I have possibly done otherwise, argument is spurious. It confuses the fact that one act displaces another with the ability to select acts and thus sidesteps the issue of free will.
          Stating that thousands didn’t murder merely emphasises that those who did at Columbine were not compelled so to do. There was an element of choice.Noone had a gun to their head, unless you consider their environment and genetics such a gun. This is very hard to justify. I think this is a real world example of the kind you were, perhaps, asking for Labreuer.

          • labreuer

            Ahh, thanks for the quote; I like it! I see what you mean by the cake thing; I missed the underlined bit of “non LFWers”.

            I’m undecided on the atom-for-atom hypothetical. A critique might be that sometimes we exercise our free will choice well before the good or bad action we ultimately take, and the hypothetical as-stated seems to move us past that point of choosing. We could also say that you’ve stopped putting any of ‘you’ in the other person’s shoes, once that last atom is exchanged. I get the sense that there’s something valid in the hypothetical, but I admit it is difficult to identify!

            In terms of the Columbine thing, I kind of was wondering whether the particular amount of bulling and/or particular genes and/or particular upbringing could get arbitrarily close to being a ‘gun to their head’. Consider a possibly easier scenario: let’s say we put more and more pressure on a group of people, such that one is ultimately driven to kill another. Who is at fault for that murder? Surely some of it comes from us, given that we were putting pressure on the group for that express purpose. Now, what if that wasn’t our purpose? Is ignorance an excuse? And so on. Perhaps this is more of a question of: who should be strung up for conspiracy to provoke the bad thing, or failing to prevent the bad thing when their job was to be competent in doing so?

          • Guy Walker

            Of course a real gun to the head, real coercion, diminishes the responsibility of the coerced enormously. Are environment and genetics a gun to the head? They can predispose but rarely coerce. Free will is always in the mix. Nehru’ s quotation again.
            The Columbiners require a mixture of understanding and punishment – it is the job of the judge to decide the proportions within the statutory scale of punishments set. There may be guilt or responsibility in others in society. Every similar massacre in the US indicts the law makers, the NRA etc They too have used free will irresponsibly. The Columbiners probably played too much Grand Theft Auto and had guns too freely available at home. They had to choose to take them to school.

          • labreuer

            What’s the difference between ‘predispose’ and ‘coerce’? Is it just one of degree?

            I find this fascinating in part because it is a reality that if you treat a group of people like shit for long enough, statistically [at least] one will try and exact vengeance. It seems like a cause & effect relationship. The fact that it is statistical really shouldn’t faze us; we know that physical reality works in statistical fashion as well. I do think there is a danger of scapegoating the people who try to exact vengeance, for this appears to at least partially justify the treatment of them.

          • Guy Walker

            Predisposition is the cards you’re dealt. Coercion is a whole different kettle of fish. Suggesting people always behave the same statistically is precisely to exclude the element of free will which may make them behave differently from samples of animals in scientific studies. Perhaps because human s are in some way different from animals?

          • labreuer

            The reason I think ‘predispose’ and ‘coerce’ aren’t so far apart is that what it takes to coerce someone depends on his/her predispositions. If an entire population experiences the same ‘coercion’, some may react ‘badly’, while others will not. But if the difference is in predisposition, then do we blame the person who reacted badly, or the people who were part of the coercion, plus possibly the people who could have prevented/mitigated the coercion?

          • Guy Walker

            I think coercion, by definition, removes the freeness of free will. Predisposition doesn’t.

          • labreuer

            I get that you’re trying to use dictionary definitions, but I’m not sure those definitions fit all that well into an actual realistic scenario. They may be too brittle. For example, your definitions result in bad treatment of a large number of people to be ‘blamed’ on a small number who react out of proportion to said bad behavior. Stated differently, as long as some of the people I treat like shit don’t respond badly, I can blame the bad reaction of the some on them, much more than on me.

            The above paints a terrible picture in my mind. It means that we can scapegoat people, instead of be expected to treat people according to their predispositions, and be held [at least partially] guilty when we fail to do this properly.

          • Guy

            The duty of the judge is to take ‘mitigating circumstances’ into account. But, one has to draw the line somewhere in the real contingent world, unless one can actually be Laplace’s demon and see and understand everything. To do this one has to be a version of an omniscient God. It’s interesting that you are starting to place burdens on us, the people who have not committed the crime in question, and taking the focus away from the perpetrator. Isn’t this the beginning of the strange scenario where the victim’s rights are considered less than the assailant’s?

          • labreuer

            Au contraire, I’m simply tracing the consequences of accepting CFW, and asking how we should think morally/ethically as a result. What one would do with the knowledge of the situation I described (treat a population this way and statistically a few will react violently) is very much up for debate. Here are two options (there are likely others, as well as a combination of the below):

            1. We could accept the statistical few and try and catch them as quickly as possible, ideally while they are plotting their violence. (Minority Report, anyone?)
            2. We could push for the population to not be treated this way.

            I would have words with those who say to go 100% #1. In fact, I would have words with anyone who wouldn’t want to continually try and do more of #2, as more information flows in. You see, the person who advocates #1 is essentially justifying the terrible treatment of some human beings, throwing up his hands and yelling, “Not my fault!” I think this is a terrible way to live. It says that I have little to no responsibility to understand my fellow human being. It lets shitty behavior be concentrated on a few people, such that those people disproportionately take out our emotional and psychological trash for us. And we demonize them for it. This reminds me of the TNG ep, Skin of Evil.

            Now, I understand that shifting from #1 → #2 is a process, requires research, etc. That’s fine. But to say it isn’t required is unacceptable in my book.

          • Guy Walker

            I have issues with the whole statistical agenda and placing people under lab conditions as the objects of experiment. These things curtail our humanity and seek to simplify what is complex in an unacceptable way. There is more to us than lab rats, but that is a whole other agenda which you may not wish to discuss. here.

          • labreuer

            Your criticism is quite ironic, as I mean to be advocating treating people more like humans, and less like “if you aren’t a statistical average, I will blame your actions on you even if you were more prone to being provoked than other people”. I’m not sure where you got the idea of “placing people under lab conditions” from me; I never meant to imply that.

            The project of actually understanding that different people are different, and treating them accordingly, seems to me the only way to treat people as human beings. Otherwise you idolize ‘normal’ and blame abnormalities on those people. “Most people wouldn’t punch me in the face for what I said; clearly you have problems since you did.” Well hmmm, maybe there actually is a problem with insulting people. And so forth.

          • Guy Walker

            Yes but we live in a contingent time-limited world where pragmatism usually has to prevail. We can do our best to cater for each individual with sliding scales of sentences, psychiatric reports which exonerate etc but we can’t abolish the sentencing system because we would end up with a worse scenario than the status quo. For me a lot of these arguments are based on the assumption we have the powers of Laplace’s demon and limitless time to know everybody’s predispositions perfectly etc. We don’t.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            I think you are broadly right. But if we were to accept such determinism, it should rightly shift our system from retributive to rehabilitative (which it has broadly done to a large extent anyway).

            Punishment under determinism should, as Pereboom really well sets out, follow a quarantine approach. Humane detention in the attempt that one makes the person fully fit and better again, but quarantine them from society until that potential moment.

          • labreuer

            I think you’ve understood me all wrong. I’ve been talking about the ideal situation, and the thing with ideals is that you have to work from where you are to them, often finding out that after you make it some of the way, you didn’t understand the ideal correctly and have to adjust it. Who knows how close we could get? I dislike it when people say, without evidence or sound reasoning, that we can’t get very close so we oughtn’t try. You aren’t saying that, at least yet.

          • Guy Walker

            I’ll do my best not to disappoint you, Labreuer, but, you never know, I might slip up. I’m only a foolish boy!

  • Daniel Frey

    Hi, first I want to thank you for this great piece, Jonathan :)

    I’ve got one question concerning determinism vs. probability (and plz don’t bite me because I’m using the “q-word” ^^). I’m particularly interested if there are true “random” events within the real world. Especially if we go down to the quantum level (there, I said it) there seem to be only probabilities, which themselve are determined but the outcome of an event could be called “truly random” if we subscribe to the notion, that the wave function itself is reality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinism#Quantum_mechanics_and_classical_physics

    I also really enjoyed the Minutephysics video on this topic: http://youtu.be/dmX1W5umC1c

    I’m curious about your thoughts on this because I sometimes see the probabilistic vs deterministic viewpoint stated as a dichotomy, although this is usually not in a philosophical context, so maybe this whole thing just amounts to some kind of equivocation fallacy.

  • Sandro Magi

    Look, for most philosophers, the free will question is no longer up for grabs.

    You seem to be implying that the generally accepted definition of “free will” has some sort of incompatibilist meaning. But Compatibilism is the most prevalent position among philosophers, and thus, most philosophers would agree that free will is compatible with determinism and that we all have free will. So yes, the free will question is no longer up for grabs for most philosophers, but not the sense you seem to be implying.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Sorry, let me be clear, most philosophers are compatibilists. But most all compatibilists deny the ability to do otherwise, ceteris paribus. Since this is what is being debated, then most do agree.

      To put it another way,some 86% deny libertarian free will. That is what I mean.

      So the question is not about whether we have LFW – most have got over this. The question becomes, if we think we have free will, how is this defined to fit with determinism; and what is to be made of moral responsibility?

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