Saturday, August 2, 2014

Randomness and freedom

Consider cases where your decision is counterfactually dependent on some factor X that is not a part of your reasons and is outside of your (present or past) rational control. The kind of dependence that interests me is this:

  • In the presence of X, you decided on A, but had X been absent, you would have decided on B on the basis of the same set of reasons.
It's important here that X isn't just an enabler of your making a decision, nor is it one of the reasons—your reasons are the same whether X is present or not—but is an extrarational difference-maker for your action.

As far as rationality is concerned, these are cases of randomness. It doesn't matter whether X's influence is deterministic or not: the cases are random vis-à-vis reason.

In these cases, the best contrastive explanation of your decision is in terms of your reasons and X. And the counterfactual dependence on X, which is outside of your control, puts your freedom into question.

I think many cases of conflicted decisions have the following property:

  1. If determinism is true, then the case involves such counterfactual dependence on a factor outside of one's reasons and rational control.
But I also think that:
  1. Some of these cases are also cases of responsibility.
It follows that:
  1. Responsibility is compatible with such counterfactual dependence
  1. Determinism is false.
If (3) is true, then a fortiori the kind of causal undeterdetermination that is posited by event-causal libertarians does not challenge freedom.

I think the right conclusion to draw is (4). I think the counterfactual dependence here does indeed remove freedom. But I do not think the mere absence of a determiner like X is enough for freedom. Something needs to be put in the place of X. What? The agent! The problem with X is that it usurps the place of the agent. Thus I am inclined to think that freedom requires agent causation. I didn't see this until now.


Jakub Moravčík said...

Could you give some example of 2)?

And, BTW, what do you think about Thomas Pink´s book "Free will: a very short introduction"? For me it is maybe the best defence of free will I have read so far, but as far as I remember, he doesn´t agree with agent causation ...

Alexander R Pruss said...

My favorite real life case: It seems plausible that if determinism holds, the decisions of the Israeli judges in this study were counterfactually dependent on how hungry they were. But they presumably weren't relevantly responsible for how hungry they were (i.e., they didn't know that how hungry they were was relevant, so we don't praise or blame them for not controlling the level of their hunger).

Nonetheless, we would hold each of the judges responsible for each decision made. If sane and ordinary judges granting parole in peacetime aren't responsible, nobody is responsible. But somebody is responsible.

Jakub Moravčík said...


"But somebody is responsible."

But isn´t this something that has to be proved? And not presupposed?

Heath White said...

I’m not sure I followed everything here, but I have the following thoughts:

1. Molinists CCFs seem like good candidates for Xs. Does it follow that middle knowledge is incompatible with freedom? That would be something.

2. There are plenty of real-life examples of such cases. The Israeli judges’ decisions seem counterfactually dependent on their hunger, whether determinism is true or not. I agree that they are responsible for their actions.

3. So I would say (3) is true, responsibility is compatible with this kind of counterfactual dependence, and nothing follows about the truth or falsity of determinism.

4. I think that Kane’s way of defending against the luck objection to libertarianism is sound enough. It’s just that it seems to me naturally to lead to compatibilism. His point is that so long as you’re intentionally trying to do something, you are responsible if you succeed, even indeterministically. To which the compatibilist will say: Right! And why would you NOT be responsible if you did succeed deterministically?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe the crucial thing is that the dependence on X is a causal difference-making dependence. The counterfactual point highlights the difference-making. I unfortunately left out the causal aspect, which the Molinist will deny is present in the CCFs. Moreover, the Molinist may say that those CCFs whose antecedents are true in fact depend on your decision.

In regard to the Israeli judges in an indeterministic world, I suspect there is no counterfactual dependence. What we have is this: P(parole | hungry) is low and P(parole | ~hungry) is high. This doesn't yield a counterfactual. In fact, there may be no strictly true counterfactuals in such indeterministic scenarios.

Imagine this. (Obviously not what happens.) When the judge is hungry, he tosses a die, and when it shows 1, he gives parole, otherwise he denies. When the judge is not hungry, he tosses a die, and when it shows 1, he denies parole, otherwise he grants. Suppose that the judge is not hungry, tosses 3, and grants parole. Can we say that if he were hungry, he would have denied parole? Of course not! People who are hungry and not hungry toss dice differently. There is no guarantee that he would have tossed 3 if he were hungry. In fact, if the toss is indeterministic, there is no fact about the number that would have come up had he tossed while hungry. (The Molinist may disagree here.) We can say that if he were hungry, he probably would have denied parole. But we can't say that if he were hungry, he would have denied parole.

Of course, indeterministic decisions aren't exactly like indeterministic dice, but I think that likewise there typically aren't counterfactuals about how one would have chosen in different circumstances. (There are *some* selected cases where there are such counterfactuals. Plantinga's examples is convincing to me. If Curley took the $5000 bribe, he'd have taken $6000 also (some qualifiers are needed).)

Alexander R Pruss said...


No: I can see that I am guilty of certain things much as I can see that I have two hands. Of course, one can introduce a sceptical hypothesis that I am a handless brain in a vat, or a sceptical hypothesis that all my actions are in fact run by little green men who control my brain. But I don't need to have any refutation of such sceptical hypotheses beside the Moorean one: "I know I have two hands and I know I am guilty of that."

Jakub Moravčík said...

"I know I have two hands and I know I am guilty of that."

Could be, but then, sorry, I don´t see any point in centuries ongoing debate of free-will/determinism/compatibilism problem. To simply say "free will is, alhtough we don´t know how, it is a secret" is totally sufficient.

Miloš said...

Jakub, I don't think that Alex wrote that metaphysics of freedom and nature of action is Moorean fact. As I understand him he wrote that phenomenology of responsibility is Moorean fact.