Sunday, July 24, 2011

More on chance and compatibilism

This is another attempt at defending the main point of this post, that the randomness objection is also problematic for compatibilists.

Compatibilism is of merely academic interest unless the freedom or responsibility whose compatibility with determinism is being defended is close enough to the kind of freedom we have. For instance, a freedom or responsibility whose compatibility with determinism is assured by supposing time travel or backwards causation is not close enough to ours to be of great interest, except academically.

Now consider this thesis:

  1. Many of the actions that we are responsible for are significantly causally affected by factors that have little to do with the ingredients in a compatibilist decision theory.
Consider, for instance, the fact that surely in the ordinary course of things, judges are responsible for their decisions. But a fairly recent study found that judges have a 65% chance of granting parole shortly after a food break, and a close to zero chance at the end of a period of not eating. Yet, except in extreme cases (e.g., a judge who had been starving for days), we would surely hold judges responsible for their decisions at both times. Effects like this are, I suspect, not at all uncommon.

But a decision to a significant extent determined by such causal factors is no less "a matter of chance" than a libertarian-free indeterministic choice is. This suggests that compatibilists cannot afford to wield the randomness objection against libertarians, unless they want to say that freedom is much more rare than we normally think.

What can compatibilists say? Well, they can go agent-causal and say that, nonetheless, the action is caused by the agent, and that makes it free. Or they can say that the desires of the agent play a significant part in the decision, and that that is enough to make the action be an action of the agent, rather than a mere matter of chance. But the libertarian can make either move.


Heath White said...

I can imagine two sorts of compatibilist reply to this line (which is pretty good).

1) "Externalism." We just say that even though judges are influenced by their meal schedule, they made the decision, and are responsible for it. That is, we embrace a luck element to responsibility. Insofar as the libertarian is devoted to avoiding luck elements in responsibility, this is not a reply the libertarian can accommodate.

2) "Second-order." We say that, although most judges allow themselves to be influenced by their meal schedule, this is the sort of thing that is in principle under their control. That is, they can monitor their eating so as not to introduce unfairness into sentencing, or with a program of fasting can learn to mitigate the effects of hunger on their sentencing. Consequently they are responsible for the degree to which they lack control over their sentencing behavior. The difference with the libertarian, in this case, is that insofar as libertarian indeterminancy is fundamental and ineliminable, there is no analogous way to exercise greater control over how much of it there is. That is, there is no content to the notion of a libertarian agent gaining greater control over his indeterministic actions.

Dan Johnson said...

This stuff is really good, Alex. Another nail in the coffin of the randomness objection to libertarianism (the other is your stuff about explanation not entailing, especially in the case of God's actions). My prospects for resurrecting that objection are dimming by the minute, though I've not given up hope. Of course, my reasons for being a compatibilist are theological in nature, not the randomness objection, and those remain untouched by this line of thinking.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think the libertarian can accept 1, too. Decisions are influenced by a variety of factors that shift the probabilities. The decision D is weakly counterfactually dependent on the factor F, in the sense that:
~(if F did not occur, D would occur).

(Strong counterfactual dependence would be: if F did not occur, D would not occur.)

I think the second order move is implausible in general. There are, no doubt, many such factors in decision-making and we have no idea what they all are. Before the study came out, many judges did not know that this was the case, and some of them were epistemically justified in not knowing this.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Of course the really big problem for the randomness worry is that unless we have too much modal collapse, God had better be able to create differently.

Dan Johnson said...


Right, that was the line of thought I meant to pick out by the "explanation not entailing" label. Explanation can't entail if we are to believe the PSR (as the doctrine of creation suggests we should) and we are to avoid modal fatalism.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, there is a sense in which this argument leaves the randomness objection alone: it just extends this to an objection to us having free will, whether or not determinism is true. It's just that once it's extended that far, the Moore shift is the way to go. That we're free is more obvious than that freedom requires lack of the sort of "chanciness" that free will involves on any view that is close to the empirical facts.