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Prof. McKenna,

Thanks for your post. About the phenomenology of choosing, you wrote that "we experience our agency as if it is open to us to order either." I often see that assertion in discussions of free will and determinism, but I'm not sure I understand what's meant by it. By "open," I take it you mean "causally open" rather than (simply) "uncoerced," and I'm wondering what it means for a choice to feel causally open rather than causally closed. Do we have any reason to think that causally open exercises of agency feel different from causally closed ones? Even if the agent believes his/her choice to be undetermined, does that belief stem from a characteristic feeling? I'm new to the site, so forgive me if this question has been answered somewhere already.

I agree Michael, that there are multiple sources of the problem. Here are some:

1. I would call your source 1. the "prima facie problem"

1B. One variant of source 1 can be called the "compulsion" or the "bypassing" problem.

2. Your source 2 strikes me as the problem of akrasia, broadly construed

3. There is also the problem of consciousness (as described in the studies by Libet and others)

4. There is the (alleged) problem of "constitutive luck," which Smilansky has eloquently described, as well as Galen Strawson, and which also seems to motivate Derk Pereboom and Neil Levy

My view for a long time has been that the only really interesting problem, and the only problem really deserving the name "free will problem," is problem/source 4. It's not clear to me if problem/source 4 is simply a species of problem/source 1, or (instead) a whole other animal. In either way, though, I think problem 4 presents the most serious threat to what we call free will. I think it explicitly motivates some of the smartest skeptics out there, like Smilansky, Strawson, and Levy (putting aside the compatibilist strains in their writing). And I think it is implicitly motivates some of the other smartest skeptics, whether they realize it or not, including especially Pereboom (and historically Einstein, Spinoza, and Darrow).

In contrast, compatibilists of all stripes seem to be mostly concerned with problem/source 1B. Having shown that problem/source 1B is, actually, not a problem at all for free will, they rest their case (or so it seems to me). In other words, these compatibilists are enthusiastic about showing how determinism does not compel one to act, unless one commits a bypassing error. In doing so, these compatibilists seem oblivious to problem/source 4. Dennet and Nahmias, among others, strike me as compatibilists in this sense (and I love both of their respective works).

I don't blame these compatibilists for enthusiastically showing that the bypassing error is real and can explain how people erroneously doubt free will. I just wish they would analyze, and address, problem/source 4 in a more explicit manner, like Smilansky, Strawson, and Levy do, even if they reach an ultimately compatibilist conclusion.


Consider what it would be like to experience one of the options as being closed to us. I would take that to mean that we are aware of the "option" but think and believe that there is nothing we can do to achieve it. It may be desirable or not, but we put it aside (as best we can) in our reasoning, because it's not a "real" option.

Now even if you are a determinist thru and thru, and believe that there is only one "real" option at any time (and even if determinism is true, so there "really is" only one option at any time), you don't experience your process of choice as being a selection between one open option and many closed ones. You are aware of several "options", and you know that at most one of them is "really open", but you don't (usually) experience many of those options as "closed" -- you don't think and believe that there is nothing you can do to achieve *those* *particular* options. You are simply unaware of which ones are open and which are closed, so none (or almost none) seem closed to you.

And that's what I'd say it means to experience our options as open.

And please forgive *me* if this question has been answered better previously.


You state “When we deliberate, we try to decide between options.” By that statement, I believe you’re assuming that one thought is able to influence or interact with another thought in an intelligent manner within a person’s brain. (I agree with that assumption.)

If that assumption is true, then free will *must* exist, unless the source of human intelligence is directly from the four fundamental forces of physics. In other words, in a truly predeterministic world, the interaction between any two human thoughts would be controlled solely by the 4FFOP in a bottom-up manner, and one thought wouldn’t exert *any* control upon any other thought. Any apparent intelligence associated with the interaction of two thoughts would need to be either pure coincidence, or sourced directly from the 4FFOP (e.g., gravity). I believe that line of reasoning is how mankind is going to prove that FW exists (and I'm not fooling).

Hi Steve,

Welcome! I think Michael just means that in those situations, it really seems like we can make either choice. (No language of openness necessary.)

And, for what it's worth, I think the phenomenology is pretty strong that OTHER people can do otherwise (or could have done otherwise), too. Maybe that's not quite phenomenology, but something along those lines. A seeming?

Hi Michael!

Just for my own taste, your two proposed sources are more inward-looking than anything that really speaks to me. I don't see that there needs to be anything especially first-personal about the problem of free will. Leaving my own agency out of it, it's enough just to think of other people and their actions/behaviors, and I find myself in a situation that can be roughly described like this: I am generally find it obvious, plain to view, that their behaviors are actions, and intelligible as such; yet that viewpoint does retreat in cases where the cause of their movements comes from outside of anything like their deliberations or choices (as with a spasm or a seizure); and yet further, it seems to me that in some important sense all of our behaviors can trace their causal chains to outside of our mental lives. Seems to me that that would be enough to get a free will puzzle going in an initial form?

Hi Michael-

This strikes me as a worthwhile point that helps explain some of the cross-talk that seems to characterize compatibilist/incompatibilist discourse. It reminds me of a passage in "A Brief History of Recent Work on Free Will," written by my second-favorite philosopher:

"Some philosophers have argued that what is properly central to the free will problem is a kind of /deliberative agency/. On this conception of the problem, free will is a kind of capacity that is implicated in deliberation and threatened by beliefs that undermine the efficacy, utility, or necessity of freedom in deliberation, usually when considered against the backdrop of the natural causal order. There are also philosophers who have focused on the idea that free will is centrally about our ability to make a distinctive difference to the causal order, whether deterministic or not. Call this a /causal contributor/ conception of free will.

There have also been philosophers whose interest in what can be called /strong agency/, or the kind of agency required for robust self-control, and perhaps characteristically human powers such as creativity and originality in decision-making. For these latter philosophers, their interest in free will may intersect with concerns about moral responsibility but what is really at stake is to characterize some particularly complex or demanding form of agency, oftentimes identified as /autonomy/.

These conceptions need not be “pure” . . . You could, for example, think one or more of these notions are co-extensional, or that free will is an agential feature that combines several of these concerns . . .
. . . [As a matter of characterizing the stakes, we are best] served by recognizing the existing disagreements [about "the" issue], and flagging our own interests and concerns in what—at least as matter of tradition—we might continue to call “the free will problem”, even as we recognize that there is no single problem that has a unique and exclusive claim on being the problem of free will. It makes things less terminologically tidy, but it reflects the diversity of genuinely interesting philosophical puzzles that have a recognizable claim on being part of the philosophical tradition of reflection on free will."

Do you think that your one and two map on reasonably well to the "deliberative agency" and "strong agency" notions identified in that passage? Or do you think they are capturing distinct notions?

At any rate, I suspect you and the author of that passage are fellow-travelers on this matter.

Hi Michael,

These are great questions.

Regarding your first point: although this might not bear a direct relation to the general claims that you are raising here, I fear that you have described only one of many distinct types of decision-making experiences. Perhaps sadly, some people experience their own daily decision-makings as riddled with anxieties and insecurities that render the act of decision rather challenging, even in apparently mundane contexts. Thus, your description of your experience of your daily mental agency, as one where it feels “open” to you to decide among multiple options, does not obviously generalize.

Regarding your second point: here, I think, the worries that you mention are more specifically about the kind(s) of active, causal control that an agent might exert over her own cognitive capacities, given the assumption that causal determinism and concomitant forms of naturalism are correct. If I’ve understood you, then I think your worries go very deep indeed: causal determinism and related forms of naturalism do seem to imply that an agent exerts NO active, causal control over her own cognitive capacities, and this is troubling.

Consider also history, not as it necessarily pertains to moral responsibility, but as it pertains to how people turn out generally. Someone's tragic history seems to have "determined" the tragic state they are now in. But we all have histories. Perhaps this is just Kip's #4?

The interesting question is whether it *matters* in, e.g., your #1 without assumptions about how one will be judged or critiqued or resented in light of those "choices."

Mike (if I may), a great question to start off the month. And even in its first part about the April Fool, a subtle question arose in my mind: how is it that PvI and Kane et al know not to take offence? Because they self-reflect on the proffered context in (presumably) appropriate ways: Mike's comments provide a defused context of evaluating the logically possible alternatives of taking offence against seeing this as back-handed compliment, and favoring the latter. And this conclusion is correct (normatively) even given that PvI and Kane actually function deterministically as supercomputing minds running the inputs of Mike's comments in the presumed appropriate way with those logically possible alternatives (insult versus compliment considered as broadly possible across the entire course of the process of deliberation). And so neither PvI nor Kane et al would take offence given proper processing (where "proper" is axiologically asserted by the usual norms as finally obtaining across that whole deterministic process). They would finally "choose" not to take offence by appropriate norms, even given that all this is deterministically arrived at the end. (Perhaps Watson might say this is a form of "objective-by-norm" identification with the result; I dunno.)

Moral: it ain't the particular metaphysical process that's important, it's the presumed normativity of the process that functions reliably from beginning to end that counts (and determinism can deliver that reliability under certain circumstances; can indeterminism in any such circumstances?).

But seriously, a great question to which I have given a strangely circuitous answer, though I offer it in the spirit of the April Fool (Aries) I am.

I think the two sources have experimental setups that exemplify "physics" type equivalent questions about causality and determinism. 1: I am ambivalent about steak or tuna, so I choose using a number drawn from my random number generator. In the usual way of thinking about these things, the randomization had cut off (some) subsequent mealtime events from previous causal processes. 2: the traditional questions about rates of particular akrasic behaviours - say the murder rate in a group of "uncoerced" humans - that act in a lawlike fashion eg can be modelled as constant plus an error term drawn from an appropriate statistical distribution.


Clearly you missed the part of my APA presentation in which I proved that acting freely *does* require believing in libertarianism!

I am inclined to think that your 1 does have something to do with moral responsibility in an immediate way: it seems to be largely in part of experiencing ourselves as agents in the way you describe in 1 that we tend to feel (and believe that we should feel) guilty when we act wrongly (perhaps the analogue also holds in the case of pride). Its plausible to me also to think that it is largely because we believe others are agents like us that we tend to feel resentment and indignation toward them when they act wrongly. Thus, it seems to me that the experience of agency and our proclivity to engage in holding one another (and ourselves) morally responsible are deeply and immediately connected. But maybe by not immediately connected you just meant that no entailment holds.

I am inclined to think that these issues matter quite a bit. Which issues we are concerned with will drive our theories. Moreover, which issues and positions we are drawn to are likely to be partly a function of our more general philosophical views, and, in turn, these more general philosophical views are likely to shape which positions we find plausible and which issues we find important. If one is an ontological naturalist and epistemological empiricist, that will likely greatly constrain which issues you think are important and what positions to consider to be serious contenders.

Here's a possible example. Tim O'Connor begins his 2000 book by saying that he will not begin his inquiry by assuming any doctrines about naturalism or its falsity but will simply do his best to construct the most plausible theory of the phenomena he is after, which is a rather robust kind of agency. If it turns out to be incompatible with naturalism, so much the worst for naturalism. For others who are naturalists (in some sense that actually has bite), the problem is how to make sense of agency within a naturalist framework (take John Bishop (and maybe yourself) for example). This difference in starting points (difference in initial assumptions) may well explain why they end up at such very different positions.

Thanks for the great post, Michael. You mention the possibility of both multiple sources and multiple problems. This leaves open that a single problem can have multiple sources. Or to put it differently, that several sources of problems can ultimately be matched with a single solution. But it could also be that each source corresponds to a different “problem” that can be solved with its own solution.

Some think that the kind of freedom we are committed to in deliberation is just different from what moral responsibility requires, for example. But there is some reason to think these routes to a puzzle are connected--it would be a coincidence, or at least something in need of explanation, if they were unrelated. Even if they are connected, though, it need not mean that they are one and the same. Perhaps deliberation presupposes the freedom necessary for moral responsibility, for example, but also goes beyond it. Suppose that Frankfurt cases show that one can be responsible even if there is a counterfactual intervener prepared to make you decide differently. Now suppose that you deliberate about whether to X or Y (take a trip or not, get married or not, vote for a particular candidate or not, fill in your favorite). Later, you find out that you were in a Frankfurt case--though you decided on your own, a counterfactual intervener was waiting in the wings, ready to ensure that you decided that way if you needed it. Were you mistaken about your presuppositions? If you think you were, then it seems you presupposed something that went beyond what is required for moral responsibility. So you could think some of your presuppositions that made your deliberation possible were false, but not that you weren’t responsible. (Thanks to Randy Clarke and Gary Watson for this kind of scenario.)

This is just one way that we might find a fit between two “solutions” to problems that arise in different ways, but not a fit of identity.

How do you think the problems--or sources--you mention are related?

Hi All, Thanks to everyone for these thoughtful comments. Sorry it took me a little while to respond. Just settling back into life after a wonderful APA meeting. I'll respond in a series of brief comments rather than one long one.

First, just quickly, thanks Alan for humoring me. Your attempt at humor was way better than mine. And Chris, I was at your APA, but I missed that part where believing in libertarianism is required *for* acting freely. No wonder I've been messing up my life so badly! Nothing feels right. I just tried your advice while buttering my toast and felt so much more liberated!

Second, also just quickly to Steve, let me say along with Neal welcome to our site. Mark and Neal both offered adequate replies to you, I think. In general, I suppose I would say, the spirit of my question was genuinely about the *sources* of the free will problem. And I was just noting that a simple features of agency present in much of our daily lives--the impression that we can do a range of things when we go about our days--is one of the pre-theoretical sources of the (or a) free will problem.

For the above reason, I agree with a lot of what Kip noted above, but I guess I would qualify in that some of what he mentions is better understood, I think, as a set of puzzles or problems one finds as an upshot of theorizing about the (or a free will) problem.

I'll close this one here and then turn to others' remarks in my next comment.

Hey folks, we have Jonathan Weinberg in the house! Break out your party hats. Welcome, Jonathan. I agree with you, this third-personal perspective on human agency is also a unique source of the free will problem. And here too, it seems to me, while it does connect up to questions of moral responsibility, it need not. It just seems to be one about what makes behavior intelligible as action and how causes external to a person's agency (seem to) undermine that impression. There's a now quaint way of expressing this source of the problem by way of Wilfred Sellars' observations about the apparent tension between the scientific and manifest images of the human condition. (Dennett makes use of these perspectives in his work.)

You note, however, that there does not need to be anything first-personal about the free will problem. Hence, you seem skeptical about these other potential sources of the (or a) free will problem. Here I guess I would just say that problems of weakness of will or of the presuppositions of practical deliberation are after all legitimate sources of philosophical puzzlement, and they do have a first-personal dimension. But I agree that yours is *a* source of the free will problem.

Manuel, Right! I had forgotten about this paper of yours. If you recall, I commented on a draft. And yes, let me say, I agree with you that there are these different philosophical strategies, potentially giving rise to talking at cross-purposes. You mention three: one focused in deliberative agency, a second focused on ability to make a difference, and a third focused on a sense of self-control. I in no way object to your observation. But I would say, as noted in one of my earlier comments, that my focus was meant to be slightly different. Your passage fixes on philosophers' orientations to the problem and their theoretical approaches. I was more interested in the sources of the problem(s). What features of human life and human agency are the origins of our puzzlement. Anyway, I mean this not as a way of resisting you, but of qualifying.

Note that David's comments about history are similarly connected with a natural way of coming to think there is a problem here--problematic histories cause us to worry about the role a person really can play in shaping herself.

Chris and Dana, Your comments seem to me to be closely connected. I am inclined now, on reflection, to agree with your resistance to me, Chris. Or at least I can see why some would want to resist. I over-stated my point in claiming that my first observation had "NOTHING" to do with moral responsibility. I can see how some would think they are closely connected, as you do. (Here I would resist somewhat. Our sense of guilt, it seems to me is most fundamentally a response to our reasons and motives, our quality of will. It's about appreciating the source of our own agency. But that's another matter. I get what you are on about.) All I should have noted here is that the features of agency that give rise to one way of thinking of the problem--the ability to do otherwise--can be captured by attending to non-moral contexts altogether. This is something I found especially intriguing and insightful in Mark Balaguer's book, with his fixing on what he calls torn decisions we find in the context of ordinary life, like when we chose what cereal to eat.

Dana, note that you suggest two different ways to think about, or in some way qualify, my proposal. One is that there are multiple sources giving rise to a singular problem. Another is that there are multiple sources giving rise to multiple problems, but that there might very well be a single solution. Thanks, that's helpful! And thanks also for your suggestion that we might get one set of conditions or presuppositions about freedom for, say, deliberation, that outstrips another, say for responsibility.

I myself think that latter of your proposed qualifications is a more plausible possibility--multiple problems with a shared solution. (Although I would have to be wrong about the soundness of Frankfurt's argument against PAP. Doah!) My colleague Terry Horgan also suggested something similar to me in conversation--that these diverse problems might give rise to a single, unified picture of agency that helps make sense of how and why these problems do seem to be interconnected. Here, I am open to this possibility. Note, for example, that in Mele's 1995 book, he accounts for autonomous agency (closely connected with morally responsible agency) by first fixing on a solution to understanding weakness of will. And Michael Smith has that interesting paper (2004) in which he makes use of his explanation of the difference between weakness, compulsion, and recklessness to resist Frankfurt's conclusions about the conditions for moral responsibility. Van Inwagen on the other hand, and Ginet too, start with observations about ability to do otherwise and then work toward questions of responsibility.

Hi Michael,

FWIW, I think you are absolutely right about there being different sources of concern about the notions that fall under the general rubric "free will." The way I like to think about it (bracketing concern about weakness of will, recklessness, etc.) is in terms of moral and modal freedom, where moral freedom is whatever sort of control is required for moral responsibility, and modal freedom is the ability to do otherwise (not begging the question either way here). Then, it's an open question whether moral freedom requires modal freedom. And questions about modal freedom can be addressed independently of questions about moral freedom (I stress "can be" here, since not everyone who makes this claim succeeds in cleanly divorcing the two).

Some people, in response to this sort of taxonomy, just balk, since they don't get why someone would be interested in modal freedom independently of moral freedom. But by analogy, consider our interest in personal identity. One reason the topic of personal identity is important to us is because of its relevance for moral responsibility. We want to know what the criteria are for an agent's remaining the same person over time because we want to be able to connect the person whom we apprehend today for the crime of murder to the same person (according to the criteria) who committed that murder yesterday. However, this is hardly the only reason we're interested in personal identity. Another reason is that we want to know whether we're the kind of creature that we conceive ourselves to be. This question presses on us in its own right. It may turn out that there aren't any viable criteria for personal identity. Such an answer would impact what we believe about ourselves, and may undermine a view of ourselves that we value, independently of any further considerations regarding moral responsibility. Likewise, I suggest, modal freedom might be important to us (or at least some of us!) independently of moral freedom. Perhaps we tend to think that we possess a sort of freedom that we lack, at least if determinism is true). If so, this may impact what we believe about ourselves, and it may undermine a view of ourselves that we value, perhaps deeply, and this may be so quite independently of any further value-relevant considerations to do with responsibility.

Michael, thanks for your kind remarks on my own rather wise-assed but still semi-serious comments. Please let me try to be a bit more to the point.

We have this kaleidoscope of potential facts about descriptive contexts of what we call choices (duress, weakness of will, possible manipulation, etc.) and then we must assign values--either absolute or relative--to them as picking out what matters and what doesn't. Isn't it obvious that the ultimate problem is the justification of that assignment of what is valuable? So I take it that the real problem is a meta-issue with respect to what we pick out in the real world as most salient for claims about free will and responsibility. This is like the issue of defining "death" as based on some empirical fact(s) as most saliently valued that I pointed out in an earlier thread. Now what criteria justify the most salient ones for either "death" or "free will" might be a meta-meta-issue. I sense that at that level we are talking about world-views in the sense of ultimacy of what constitutes commitments to meaningfulness. Or--as I suspect--whether there can rationally be such final commitments that escape pragmatic skepticism about absolutism or justification in a non-pragmatist fashion.

"For the above reason, I agree with a lot of what Kip noted above, but I guess I would qualify in that some of what he mentions is better understood, I think, as a set of puzzles or problems one finds as an upshot of theorizing about the (or a free will) problem."

I think I agree with that qualification, Michael. Or at least, if we disagree, I'm not sure how. :)

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