Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Are free actions a counterexample to the PSR?

I’ve argued somewhat as follows in the past:

  1. Necessarily, no one is responsible for a brute fact—an unexplained contingent fact.

  2. Necessarily, someone is responsible for every free decision or free action.

  3. So, it is impossible for a free decision or free action to be a brute fact.

But then:

  1. Necessarily, a counterexample to the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) is a brute fact.

  2. So, no free decision or free action can be a counterexample to the PSR.

One may imagine someone, however, arguing that although a free decision or a free action cannot be a counterexample to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a contrastive report, such as that x freely chose to do A rather than B, could be a counterexample to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. But notice that if x freely chose to do A rather than B, then x is responsible for choosing to do A rather than B. Similarly if x freely chose to do A for reason R rather than B for S, then x is responsible for doing so. Freedom implies responsibility. But no one is responsible for a brute fact, so such contrastive reports cannot be reports of a brute fact.

Objection 1: Incompatibilism is true, and on incompatibilism it is obvious that no possible explanation can be given for why x freely chose to do A for R rather than B for S. Hence the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false.

Response: Given that no one is responsible for what has no explanation, if the “no possible explanation” claim is correct, then free will is impossible. Thus, rather than showing that the PSR is false, the argument would show that if incompatibilism is true, free will is impossible. As a libertarian, I think free will is possible (and actual). But it is important to keep clear on what it is that is really endangered by the argument: it is free will and not the PSR.

Objection 2: Freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for responsibility.

Response: I am not sure about this. When I think about what other conditions we need to add to freedom to yield responsibility, the only one I can think of is something like knowledge of what is at stake. But it is arguable that without knowledge of what is at stake, a choice is not free. Moreover, even if one does not know what is at stake with A and B beyond what is contained in the respective reasons R and S, one will still be responsible for choosing A for R rather than B for S if one chooses freely for these reasons. One just won’t be responsible for the further aspects, beyond those captured by R and S, that one does not know.

But let’s grant for the sake of argument that other conditions need to be added to freedom to yield responsibility. If so, then the claim has to be that free but non-responsible decisions or actions or contrastive reports thereof are a counterexample to the PSR although free and responsible ones are not. In other words, one has to hold that the alleged additional conditions that need to be added to freedom to yield responsibility are what secures explicability. But given that the most plausible candidate for the other conditions is knowledge of what is at stake, this is implausible. For a free action based on mistaken or limited knowledge is no less explicable than an action based on full knowledge, once one takes into account the agent’s epistemic deficiency.


Dominik Kowalski said...

I always had trouble in putting free choices in one of merely two categories, necessary and contingent. In general the latter is conceived as being true in some, but not all worlds, in indeterministic scenarios, the exact same event could cause a different result. This I accept. What I have trouble however in conceiving is how that applies to free choices. Say I safe my wife from an oncoming car. Is there truly a possible world in which I didn't do so? True, in a world where I was mad or just acted irrationally. But then the world wouldn't have been identical. Unlike with indeterministic scenarios I mentioned above, I don't think there's actually a world in which I acted differently. The freedom is that I *could* have acted otherwise, nothing external forced me to act that way but myself, but I would never do so and repeating the scenario in an infinite loop would never cause a different outcome.

So I'm not disagreeing with your reasoning, but doesn't that constitute an answer against objection 1 as well?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I expect there is a world where you act differently. It's just highly improbable.

But if there isn't, then we can say that you have derivative freedom -- this is a case where you are free derivatively from the non-derivatively free choices by which you developed your virtuous character.

Walter Van den Acker said...


In the world in which Dominik acts differently, what is the sufficient reason for his acting differently?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There are multiple possible vicious reasons. They are unlikely to affect a virtuous person, but can. Because the example is phrased in such a personal way, I don't want to list such vicious reasons.

Adam said...

@Dominik: I don't think that for free will to exist all choices/actions need to be free. In fact, even assuming the strongest version of libertarian free will that you can construct coherently it's likely there are still certain actions that occur in all possible worlds where they are possible.

@Walter Van den Acker: You didn't ask me, but I'll give my answer anyway by way of two examples:

1.) I have to choose between having chocolate ice cream or strawberry cheesecake for desert. I like both of these deserts equally, but for different reasons. Say that I like chocolate ice cream for it's flavor and cheesecake for it's texture. I have a reason/explanation for either choice. So, in any possible world where this situation/condition arises regardless of my choice I will have an explicable reason for choosing one and not the other.

2.) I have to choose between having chocolate ice cream or eating a bowl of broken glass. I like chocolate ice cream and eating broken glass sounds unimaginably horrible - the sort of thing that would be a struggle even if your life were on the line. In this case, I choose chocolate ice cream in every possible world. This situation is a lot like Dominik's decision to save his wife in that it occurs in all possible worlds.

In response to 1.) you might say "Well, why did you choose to eat the ice cream and not the cheesecake? Wouldn't the answer to this question prove that your decision to eat the ice cream either forces you to reject the PSR or libertarian free will? I think this is a very intuitive objection but I also think that it rests on a sort of "trick of language".

To ask "Why did you choose to do X and not Y" is really just to ask "Why did you choose to do X" because, at least in these scenarios, these options are mutually exclusive. So the answer to the second half of the question would be "...and in choosing to do X I cannot also do Y". It may be emotionally unsatisfying but I really do think the answer to this is just "Because I choose to do X"/"Because I actualized the X action".

Alexander R Pruss said...

There certainly is some possible world where you eat the broken glass. If only because in some worlds your neurons quantum tunnel into a configuration where you have an overwhelming desire for broken glass, and you act on that desire. Of course, in that world you don't *freely* eat the broken glass.

But I suspect there are worlds where you freely do so. For instance, there will be worlds where you act on a morbid curiosity.

Adam said...

@Alexander R Pruss: So you would say that my argument/position is actually too conservative? :D

Wesley C said...

@Adam & Alex,

Isn't one explanation of why one chooses X rather than Y in an indeterministic manner because of the reasons the choice is indeterministic in the first place? Since there are principles behind indeterminism, at least with regards to the nature of free choice, then the reason why one chose X in an indeterministic manner lacking contastivity is because the nature of free will just lacks absolute entailing contrastivity.

This would work whether X or Y are chosen, and they also explain exactly why they would work the same for both, so it would answer the issue of arbitrariness to some extent.

Walter Van den Acker said...

What happened to my comment?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Walter: I didn't touch it as far as I can remember.

Walter Van den Acker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter Van den Acker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mariel. C said...

I have some issues with free will here. It would seem to be that we never have a reason to choose A over B. For example, I choose A for X reason. But I could still choose B for Y reason even with having X reason present in my mind. So X reason can't be sufficient for me to choose A over B, and so it would make choosing unintelligible.