Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Free choice"

I am starting to wonder whether the way in which ordinary people, including both undergraduates and scientists, assume free choices to have alternate possibilities doesn't simply mean that the phrases "free choice" and "free will" simply mean a kind of uncompelled choice or will that involves alternate possibilities. The kind of resistance that non-philosophers show to the idea that there can be freedom and determinism, the matter-of-factness with which they assume Calvinism to be a denial of free will, seems to be good evidence that this is just what the phrases mean. If so, then the philosophically interesting question is not about the compatibility of free will and determinism, but about the compatibility of responsibility and determinism. For while the phrase "free will" very plausibly means a choice that has alternate possibilities, "responsibility" does not simply mean something with alternate possibilities.

If this hypothesis about language is correct, the ordinary lnaguage claim "Freedom is incompatible with determinism" is trivial. The claim "responsibility is incompatible with determinism" is non-trivial and controversial. One way to see that it is controversial is that the word itself is pretty broad. We talk of "causal responsibility" by non-agential causes, and that does not imply alternate possibilities.

I think none of this really affects discussion between careful philosophers. Philosophers' use "free will" differs from the ordinary use here, I think, in that in the philosophers' sense of the word, alternate possibilities are not a part of the meaning.


Drew said...

Could you come up with a thought experiment where determinism does not undermine responsibility?

Alex said...

Dr. Pruss,

On this subject, can you please point me to a blog entry or paper or just say briefly here what your views of divine providence and human freedom are?

I've tried searching where you've written on this topic, and I haven't encountered a lot of success.

Thank you.

Heath White said...

I agree with a lot of this. The folk are certainly deeply instinctually incompatibilist, and philosophers are not simply tracking the folk. In fact, I would say there is not one single uncontested platitude about the philosophical use of "free will", which makes it rather difficult to discuss in a helpful way. Obviously "conceptual analysis" isn't going to get you far.

I think that what follows is (a) any compatibilist has to offer a diagnosis of what's going on with the folk. E.g. perhaps they are confusing determinism with constraint, or perhaps with manipulation somehow. At any rate, if there's an *error* here, the compatibilist needs to say what it is.

And (b), philosophical investigations of free will need to be function- or value-driven. What do we want free will for? What's so important about it? And then we can have a discussion about what can fill those roles. For example, if free will is only of interest as a necessary condition for responsibility, then probably we would do better to turn to the question of responsibility directly.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It depends on the kind of responsibility. We talk of "causal responsibility" (which can even be had by a non-agent) and that is not undermined by determinism.

Here's a thought experiment in the case of moral responsibility. Imagine Molinism and substance dualism are both true. God then knows what your soul would choose in any sufficiently determinate circumstances. He then creates a deterministic physical world whose initial conditions are so chosen that when your soul freely chooses A, your brain starts going for A. Your brain is determined, but your soul is not. This seems to be compatible with responsibility, if Molinism makes sense. But it's not total determinism--the soul is not determined.

I do think that causal determinism in the case of a being that has a finite history is incompatible with moral responsibility, because I accept this principle:
(*) If x is at all morally responsible for an action A in internal state S and external circumstances C, then either x is somewhat morally responsible for S or C, or else A is not causally determined by S and C.


That's interesting about the lack of platitudes. I think the two important issues are: (a) responsibility and (b) decision theory.

Responsibility is obviously connected with whatever we might call "free will".

Decision theory is relevant to the determinism issue because decision theory needs counterfactuals or something like them (e.g., conditional probabilities with counterfactual conditions, but in a deterministic case, I am not sure that makes a difference), and it is not clear that one can make the right kind of sense of these given determinism. Lewis tried very hard to do this with his clever stuff on inserting small miracles, but it is now known that this failed.