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12/06/2013

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Joe,

The ultimacy argument is cool, but I’m thinking that it has one fundamental flaw: Instead of using the word “determinism”, it needs to use the word “predeterminism”. Then the argument would be rock solid, and the only issue would be whether or not predeterminism is true (and as you know, I believe it's false…).

The reason I believe the argument needs to use the word “predeterminism”, is because there’s a fundamental difference between the meanings of the words “determinism” and “predeterminism”. Predeterminism advocates that *only* the laws of physics are controlling everything in reality and there's only one possible path, whereas determinism allows the inclusion of “new emergent forces” (i.e., life) to come into the equation, thereby becoming part of what *determines* the path forward.

In other words, if life exerts new forces that affect the path, then the first premise of the ultimacy argument is false, since determinism may be true while at the same time, one may be partially the source of one’s acts.

Joe, I wonder if you think that what I wrote over on the next thread and in my book can be used to get around Strawson’s causa sui argument. Here's the logic. The impossibility of self-causation applies only to changing the physical basis of making a present decision that is realized in or supervenes on that very same physical basis. Self-causation does not apply to changing the physical basis of making a future decision. Neurons, for example, alter the physical grounds, not of present mental events, but of future mental events. Criteria can be set up in advance, such that when they are met, an action follows; this is an action that the agent will have willed to take place by virtue of having set up those particular criteria in advance. At the moment those criteria are satisfied at some unknown point in the future, leading to some action or choice, those criteria cannot be changed, but because criteria can be changed in advance, the agent (e.g. executive circuitry) is free concerning what behaviors/thoughts will occur within limits in the near future. Criteria such as “is a person who has red hair” can be physically realized in neuronal preconditions for firing. A criterial outcome is an outcome that meets certain preset criteria, but what that outcome will be is not foreseeable. For ex., Ronald MacDonald might come to mind. Now, had we run the sequence of events over from the same initial conditions, with the same criteria, we may have ended up with a different outcome, because of noise in the system. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher might have come to mind. Any criterial outcome will meet the criteria preset by the agent, and so will be an outcome that is satisfactory to the agent and partially caused by that agent, but it will also not be a unique solution solely determined by the agent or coerced upon that agent by external forces. So the agent bears some responsibility for the outcome, because the agent set those criteria.

James: I'm not sure I agree about the difference in the meanings between the two terms. I take "determinism" to mean what philosophers of science who work on determinism take it to mean (and what van Inwagen takes it to mean). I can wrap my head around why this might be a bad approach -- thanks mostly to some conversations with Al -- but I still can't think of a better approach.

But "predeterminism"? Your description sounds like physicalism, maybe a kind of physicalist determinism: a complete physical description of the state of the world at sometime in the past together with the laws of nature entails every true proposition. Hopefully, I address some of these concerns below.

Interesting post, Peter. I like the view; I’m inclined to think something like it is true but I’m not sure it gets around Strawson’s argument. Here are some comments. Likely I need to think about this further.

First, you write: “The impossibility of self-causation applies only to changing the physical basis of making a present decision that is realized in or supervenes on that very same physical basis.” I’m not sure this is right. As I see it, Strawson’s argument is more about undermining ultimate responsibility. The idea is that the causal chains leading to your action either flow right through you or never get to you in the first place. The puzzle is about the impossibility of grounding anything that you do in you, which is why I think it is similar to puzzles about grounding knowledge and justification.

Thus, Strawson would likely reject claims like these:
“because criteria can be changed in advance, the agent … is free”
“Any criterial outcome will meet the criteria preset by the agent, and so will be an outcome that is satisfactory to the agent and partially caused by that agent …”
“… the agent bears some responsibility for the outcome, because the agent set those criteria.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Personally I think, like you do, that agents are morally responsible for their actions because they are partial causes; I’m inclined to think that ultimate causation is, if not impossible, at least unlikely given what we know about the physical universe.

But if I understand Strawson’s argument, his claim is that if ultimate responsibility is impossible, then so is partial responsibility. In this way, his argument is similar to the foundationalist’s regress argument. Foundationalism is true (says the foundationalist) because none of the other options work. In order to have knowledge, or adequate justification, foundationalism (ultimate justification if you will) must be true. Strawson takes a similar root and just adds to it that such ultimacy is also impossible.

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