Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Compatibilism vs. incompatibilism

For what it's worth, I think the upshot of my recent posts on regress arguments and free will is this: Whether compatibilism is true or not depends largely on whether

  1. It is possible that x is to some extent responsible for a deterministically caused state of affairs A even though x is in no way responsible for any of A's causes?
I am not completely wedded to every detail of the formulation (it might be better to use a non-disjunctive account of "responsible" and say: "even though x is neither identical with nor responsible for any of A's causes", and add the proviso that it is only by agent causation that x could be a cause), but the above gets the basic idea across. If (1) is true, then compatibilism is surely right. And if (1) is false, the incompatibilism is surely right. That is what matters.

Are the answers to (1) and (2) (which will be given at the bottom) positive? I think not. Here is something that is more a statement of intuitions rather than an argument.

  1. If (1) is true, then it is possible for a person to be intentionally produced fully formed, and for its character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances to immediately causally determine a choice that the person is at least somewhat responsible for.
  2. But the consequent of (3) is false.
  3. Hence (1) is false.
And so compatibilism is false.

Here is my intuition for thinking (3) to be true. If a choice is immediately causally determined by character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances that the agent (if one can even call her that) is in no way responsible for, then the only thing that matters for determining whether the agent is responsible for the choice is the extent, if any, to which the agent was responsible for this character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances. Nothing else about their causal history matters. The responsibility-relevant thing is the extent to which the agent is responsible for them.

My reason for thinking (4) to be true is even less developed and philosophical. It's one of those "arguments" by restatement of what is to be proved. It just seems right to say that if I choose the character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances so as to ensure that the person I produce in that state is thereby immediately caused to choose A, then that person is not free in that choice. (I should note, though, that at least one person who is very friendly to compatibilism—Mele—is committed to (4). So my intuition in (4) does not beg the question.)

Finally, since I think the real issue is about sources, not about determinism or even deterministic causation, I think the really interesting question is not so much whether (1) is true, but whether

  1. It is possible that x is to some extent responsible for a state of affairs A even though x is in no way responsible for any of A's causes?
If the answer to (2) is positive, probably the answer to (1) is positive as well, though this is a controversial conditional. And of course if the answer to (2) is negative, then the answer to (1) has to be negative.

I know, also, that Heath has a way of separating the responsibility question from (1) and (2) by vagueness about responsibility. I think that's mistaken, because more sophisticated versions of the 3-5 argument can be used to argue that responsibility does not increase in deterministic transactions. But that's rather more controversial. Anyway, I don't like non-epistemic vagueness when something important, like responsibility, is at stake.


Heath White said...


My views are not set in stone on this question, so here are three, not counterarguments, but probes.

1. What’s a “cause”? A good Aristotelian should say that the relevant kind of mental cause is a formal cause, not an efficient cause. Is this your view? Does it affect the truth of (1) or (2)? Could one be responsible for all the formal causes of a choice without being responsible for their material/efficient substrates?

2. On your view, there is a first choice for which one is responsible. By (1) or (2), one must be responsible for the causes of this choice. By hypothesis, these causes are not further choices. Whatever these causes are, does a (1)-or-(2)-style principle apply to them? That is, must we be responsible for the causes of the causes of the first responsible choice? E.g. it seems clear that if I am responsible for my self, by way of some kind of agent causation, it does not follow that I am responsible for the causes of my self. If so, why would the self get treatment different from choices?

3. (Somewhat off topic.) If we are responsible for our choices, then those choices are not determined. If they are not determined, then they might have been otherwise, everything else held constant. How does your commitment to non-determinism square with your commitment to the Principle of Sufficient Reason in the cosmological argument?

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. I have no idea what to make of the distinction between formal and efficient causes. I was definitely thinking only of efficient ones.

2. Good question. In regard to (1), there is no difficulty. For I do not deterministically cause A. In regard to (2), there is a difficulty. There, what I want to do is to have some kind of a focal-meaning sense of "responsible". There is one sense in which I am responsible for something that I cause, and a different sense in which I am responsible for myself. The former is causal. The latter is entirely acausal, and normative. I think this is not just an equivocation.

3. A fine question. I have two relevant chapters in my PSR book. If you're interested, I can email them to you. Short answer: a sufficient explanation is sufficiently explanatory but not logically sufficient.

Heath White said...

OK. Re my 2: are all agents (infants, mentally handicapped people, etc.) responsible for themselves in the agential sense, or is there a first moment in which they become responsible? Assume the latter. Agents cannot by hypothesis be responsible for the causes of their becoming responsible; perhaps we want to think of conferring responsibility on others by educating them morally. Is it plausible, though, that someone could be morally educated so as to make them responsible, without thereby being influenced (in a "sufficiently explanatory" way) to choose in one way rather than another, at least at first?

Nightvid said...

I do not accept (3). You cannot be responsible for anything at the instant you begin to exist - that is absurd.

Also, either you accept that an action is ultimately caused by something that was not consciously controlled with intention by an agent, or you must have an infinite regress of intentions.

BTW, God does not exist. Neither do purple space monsters, celestial china teapots, or the invisible, immaterial, undetectable Dragon in My Garage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It seems like your reason for denying (3) is simply that you deny its consequent.

As for infinite regress, it is possible that an action has a cause that is not intentional, as long as that cause does not determine the action.