This is going to be my last post. I want to thank everyone for this terrific opportunity and for the helpful comments I got. I really appreciate your having taken the time to think through these (in some cases, quite underdeveloped) ideas with me. Thanks to Thomas, especially, for the invitation, and for doing such a great job at running this blog. This has been my first serious blogging experience, and I feel like it has been a very positive one. I hope you enjoy my last post!
Many of us are interested in “the problem of determinism and free will.” But what is the problem of determinism and free will? Last year Joe Campbell came to Arizona (as an Arizona alum) and we discussed some of his work on free will in a workshop. As most of you probably know, Joe wrote a very interesting paper in Analysis (“Free Will and the Necessity of the Past”) where he argued that the consequence argument is flawed or at best proves a weaker conclusion than incompatibilism. My reaction to Joe’s objection to the consequence argument (a reaction that I share with others, although not with everyone, by all means) was, and still is, that we shouldn’t conclude that this is a problem for incompatibilism (or for incompatibilists that rely on the consequence argument) but, rather, that incompatibilism is a weaker thesis than we have typically taken it to be. And this is because the threat to our freedom is not determinism per se, or not just determinism, but determinism plus something else. Let’s call this claim “the demotion claim” about the problem of determinism and free will.
I know that it’s a debated issue whether the demotion claim is really true, and I’m not going to try to persuade everyone of its truth (although we can of course discuss this, if you want). Instead, I’ll briefly explain my reasons for believing in the demotion claim and what I take the “missing ingredient” in the problem of determinism and free will to be, and then I’ll argue that, on the assumption that my thoughts about the demotion claim are true, it follows that two important source-incompatibilist arguments fail. (“Source-incompatibilist” arguments are arguments that attempt to show that determinism is a threat to our free will, not on the basis of alternative-possibilities considerations, but on the basis of considerations having to do with actual sources or actual causal histories.) The moral will be that, whereas the demotion claim may be bad news for leeway-compatibilists, it’s good news (in fact, great news!) for source-compatibilists, in particular, for actual-sequence theorists like me.
According to at least some plausible definitions of determinism, if determinism is true, what we do now is determined by past events, but it’s also determined by future events. Now, whereas we think that the existence of past-determination is a threat to our freedom, we don’t think that the existence of future-determination is a similar threat. What’s the difference, if in both cases there’s determination (by other events and the laws)? Presumably, the difference is that, whereas we can causally influence the future by acting in the present, we cannot similarly influence the past. Now, this suggests that the threat to our freedom is not determination per se, but determination by events that are beyond our causal reach. That is, the problem arises for us because there exist events that are such that, if determinism is true, they make our acts inevitable and they fall outside of the sphere of our causal influence (and thus are out of our control).
So this is basically why I think that the demotion claim is true and what I think the missing ingredient in the problem of determinism and free will is. (I warned you my explanation here would be brief!) Now consider two main “source-incompatibilist” arguments:
1. Ultimacy Arguments
Roughly, these go as follows:
(a) Determinism entails that we are not the ultimate sources of our acts.
(b) We can’t be free unless we are the ultimate sources of our acts.
(c) Determinism rules out freedom.
Different understandings of the key “ultimate sourcehood” condition result in different versions of the argument. However, all plausible understandings of the ultimacy condition seem to entail the following “minimal” condition:
Ultimacy (Causal Access): Being the ultimate sources of our acts requires having some kind of causal access to all the actual sufficient sources of our acts.
I say this is a minimal condition because, according to some formulations of the ultimacy condition (for example, Kane’s), ultimacy requires more than that (it requires being responsible for the actual sufficient sources; but, then again, he formulates the whole ultimacy requirement in terms of responsibility, not freedom).
Now, assuming my thoughts on the demotion claim are true, if ultimacy arguments are to establish incompatibilism, they should look more like this:
(d) If our acts are determined by factors beyond our causal reach, we are never the ultimate sources of our acts.
(e) We can’t be free unless we are the ultimate sources of our acts.
(f) If our acts are determined by factors beyond our causal reach, we cannot be free.
But, if, as we have seen, ultimacy is understood in terms of Ultimacy (Causal Access) or something stronger, the second premise of this argument is blatantly question-begging (and the first premise is true, but trivially so). The second premise says that freedom requires (at least) causal access to the actual sufficient sources of our acts, where the absence of causal access of that kind is something that’s needed for the problem of determinism and free will to even arise.
2. Direct arguments (or “transfer of non-responsibility” arguments)
Roughly, these go as follows:
(g) We are not responsible for the remote causes of our acts.
(h) If we are not responsible for X, and we are not responsible for the fact that, if X then Y, then we are not responsible for Y. (Transfer of non-responsibility principle)
(i) If determinism is true, we are not responsible for our acts.
As Ravizza, and then Fischer and Ravizza, noted, as it stands the argument doesn’t work against a source-compatibilist because Frankfurt cases and other overdetermination cases seem to undermine the transfer of non-responsibility principle (the agent in a Frankfurt case is not responsible for the presence of the neuroscientist, and he’s not responsible for the fact that, if the neuroscientist is present, he’ll make a certain choice, but he still seems responsible for his choice). As a result, “one path” versions of the transfer principle have been suggested (McKenna, Stump):
(One-Path Transfer) If we are not responsible for X, where X is the only path that is (at some time) actually causally sufficient for Y, then we are also not responsible for Y.
The thought is that this version of the principle could still do the required work in the direct argument (and Frankfurt cases are not counterexamples to it). But note that, contraposing, this principle is equivalent to:
If we are responsible for Y, and if X is the only path that is (at some time) actually causally sufficient for Y, then we are responsible for X.
And, assuming that we could only be responsible for that single path X to the extent that we had some kind of causal access to it, this principle entails Ultimacy (Causal Access). Now, as we have seen, assuming the demotion claim is true, the appeal to Ultimacy (Causal Access) is question-begging. As a result, direct arguments that rest on one-path principles (which are the only direct arguments that could work in this context) are also question-begging.
In sum: these arguments presuppose, at some level, that freedom requires causal access to the actual sufficient sources of our acts. However, if the demotion claim is true, the problem of determinism and free will only arises to the extent that we assume that we lack causal access to some of the actual sufficient sources of our acts. As a result, the arguments are question-begging.
Sorry if this is a bit sketchy, but hopefully you get the idea!