Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Deterministic Compatibilism

People often think that determinism automatically means that there is no moral responsibility, and that nobody can act freely. This post states that and proposes a solution: we forget about how deterministic the world is. He may be joking, but this is similar to William James' position: that we had to believe in free will on moral grounds. Regardless, here was my comment:

That’s not a solution.

The truth is that you don’t know the future. In a sense, you can decide the future - because nobody knows what the future will be, and you have the power to look ahead, evaluate your free will (or lack thereof), look at the consequences, and make a decision.

Think about that. If you think it’s totally out of your control, it is. If you don’t, it isn’t. There’s something to be said for those self-help books and motivational speakers who say “you decide what you want to be.”

It’s a laborious process to exercise rationality in your actions, but when you do, you are exercising free will.

This is called deterministic compatibilism.


Free will can happen (to a degree) within a deterministic physical system. It has a limit, but nevertheless we have some ability to respond to environmental stimuli, based on our genetics. How we act is predetermined, and what environmental stimuli we are affected by is up to chance. If I convinced you that you can adopt a non-fatalistic stance towards free and you acted on it, exerting some measure of volition, then my stimuli could push you towards a path of rational action. If you aren't convinced, you may adopt a fatalistic stance and drift through life. What you do or don't do depends upon your past environment and genetics -- ultimately, God or chance may be morally responsible. But society can't punish God. Society can only punish you. It doesn't matter whether you wanted to be born with no sense of right or wrong, no sense of discipline, no intelligence, no future, ect. You play with the cards you're dealt, and if you don't play well, then that's your fault.

It's a tragedy, but that's life.

(The ultimate irony is that I have yet to start my 5-page International Trade paper, due tomorrow.)

7 comments:

ADHR said...

Chance causal interactions aren't compatibilism -- that's indeterminism. So, really, what you're defending is a retrospective determinism and a prospective indeterminism. There's nothing in that view that looks like free will.

However, the literature on free will is divided on whether determinism and responsibility are really incompatible. Harry Frankfurt conjured a style of counter-example (Frankfurt examples) that is supposed to show that determinism does not rule out moral responsibility. I don't buy the examples, but some do. The basic idea is that you don't need to have other options in order for your choices to be something that you are responsible for.

My sense currently is that the free will literature is turning away from determinism/indeterminism stuff and more towards agent-causation: that is, I have free will to the extent that my choices make a causal difference.

The Garden of Forking Paths (linked from my blog) is a free will/moral resonsibility group blog, if you're into that kind of thing.

undergroundman said...

Chance causal interactions

I don't see what you mean by chance?

So, really, what you're defending is a retrospective determinism and a prospective indeterminism.

That probably encapsulates it, yeah. Do you know of anyone else who argues that?

There's nothing in that view that looks like free will.

Prospective indeterminism looks like free will to me. In order words, I think it's close enough (especially for moral responsibility). Yeah, there is one set path in the future for every individual, but it's up to you to make that happen. It's an inspiring determinism. It's also quite similar to standard compatibilism which absorbs determinism and says that actions are free anyway when they are not acted under coercion. (Hobbes, Hume)

The basic idea is that you don't need to have other options in order for your choices to be something that you are responsible for.

Hmm. My argument is simply: who else could be responsible? You take responsibility for who you are, for bad or worse.


My sense currently is that the free will literature is turning away from determinism/indeterminism stuff and more towards agent-causation: that is, I have free will to the extent that my choices make a causal difference.


Free will seems pretty elementary. I haven't read much about it but it seems to me anyone who argues for straight free will is an idiot. Likewise, people who argue for hard determinism without making the distinction I made are perpetuating the widespread misconception that determinism is incompatible with responsibility and leads to fatalism.

Yet I don't really understand - whether my choices have a causal difference on my actions, you mean? I forget what the word for that is called? Is it related to Kripke somehow?

Daniel said...

> If I convinced you that you can adopt a non-fatalistic stance towards free and you acted on it, exerting some measure of volition, then my stimuli could push you towards a path of rational action. If you aren't convinced, you may adopt a fatalistic stance and drift through life.

But you're simply subscribing to the illusion here. This is no different than arguing that we have free by showing me an example of a decision you made earlier in the day.

The fact that you convinced me that nothing mattered in life and I went out and became a murderer doesn't mean you or I had any choice in the matter. I forget the name of the debate error you're making here, but you're doing it.

At any rate, I enjoy the discussion. :)

undergroundman said...

But you're simply subscribing to the illusion here. This is no different than arguing that we have free by showing me an example of a decision you made earlier in the day.

I don't follow.

The fact that you convinced me that nothing mattered in life and I went out and became a murderer doesn't mean you or I had any choice in the matter. I forget the name of the debate error you're making here, but you're doing it.

There's no debate error that I can see. You should try to remember. My main point is that whether you think you have freedom or not exerts a causal effect on your actions. Therefore, think you have freedom and you'll act better. You see?

Simple Mind said...

As I said on the other blog, it's all about the perception of choice when it comes to the free will argument. Even if you truly don't have it, the method which guides you to your ultimate decision is either so infinitely complex or uncomprehensibly powerful that you will be unable to understand that you are, in fact, being guided.

ADHR said...

UGM: Re-read your post: you're the one who said "chance"!

There's a difference between indeterminism and free will, in that indeterminism doesn't imply that what you choose has any effect on what happens. That is, indeterminism just means that not all events are causally determined. To say that choice exerts influence on events is to make a further claim than that.

If there's any sense in which it's "up to me" what happens in the future, then that's neither determinism nor indeterminism -- that's a view that gets called (confusingly, given the totally dissimilar political view) libertarianism. Libertarianism is the view that I can make different things happen in the future -- that is, there are genuine options.

I don't know that Kripke has done much on free will. My sense is he's more of a mind and language guy.

As far as responsibility goes, one view is that, if you really had no alternatives, then you are not responsible. Maybe no one is; maybe whatever power (say, Descartes' demon) manipulates you is responsible. Frankfurt's view, however, is that as long as you make the decision that a greater power (like the demon) would have made for you, then the fact that you make it, regardless of the lack of alternative paths, makes you responsible for it.

Daniel: I think you and UGM are talking past each other a little. I believe what he's saying is that the fact that you were genuinely convinced to do something that you weren't going to do otherwise implies that things could have been otherwise, except for your being persuaded. Which, in turn, implies that your choice matters (causally, no less), which is free will (quite a robust form of free will). It's certainly possible to question whether there's any such thing as genuinely being convinced to do something other than what one was already going to do, but denying the phenomenology here carries a pretty heavy burden of proof. Namely, if there aren't ever really any cases of people being genuinely convinced to do different things than they would have done otherwise, why does it seem that these cases happen all the time?

Simple Mind: I'm not sure there's a distinction to be had there between knowing that you are guided and actually being guided. If you don't know you're guided, then how, exactly, are you guided? What's the difference between the case when you're actually guided, but don't know it, and when you're not guided, and don't know it? It seems to me that what's crucial is the internal sense of agency. As long as you're confident that your choice matters, then there's no sense in questioning (per Descartes) if there's some greater power manipulating you, because there is (ex hypothesi) no discernable difference between the two cases.

undergroundman said...

"UGM: Re-read your post: you're the one who said "chance"!"

Re-read what I said about chance. I said that ultimately one might think that nobody is responsible for who they are and their subsequent actions because they didn't choose to be who they are. They didn't choose to be morally deficient, weak-willed, ect, so why should we punish them for it? What I'm implying is that the idea of moral responsibility seems outdated. But then I (try) to go to show that even if it is somewhat delusional, it's necessary because it exerts causal effects on the world.

But then I go on to say that we have to enforce the idea of free will because believing in it has psychological, causal consequences on the amount of "free will" (perhaps a bad word) that people exert.

"There's a difference between indeterminism and free will, in that indeterminism doesn't imply that what you choose has any effect on what happens. That is, indeterminism just means that not all events are causally determined. To say that choice exerts influence on events is to make a further claim than that."

I'm not exactly sure I believe that. Instead I believe that there is one set, determined path -- but that doesn't mean you should give up. It's somewhat similar to Calvinism: there are people predestined to go to heaven, but that doesn't mean you should give up your faith. Instead it's up to you to prove that you are one of those people. I'm just saying it's up to you to prove that you are one of the moral, strong people (and it is in your best interest to do so).

Whether or not there are multiple "forked paths" seems relevant, but it's quite possible that it's not. And really, how to do argue for something like that in the world today?