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11/11/2014

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Nate,
If we are talking about the relevance of opportunities to the free will debate, then it seems like the wrong thing to say is that UB lacks this ability. The right thing to say is that "UB has the ability to run a world class 100m" has both a true and a false reading. Those who like the opportunity distinction claim that the word "able" is ambiguous. They grant that there is a purely intrinsic sense of ability, but claim that the word has a second meaning that is more relevant to free will that includes opportunities.

There is excellent reason that those who employ the opportunity distinction claim that the term 'able' is ambiguous. Consider the claim "The chair of the mathematics department at Harvard is able to solve the equation 2+2=x." Certainly, there is a true reading of this sentence. Further, I don't need to know whether the chair of Harvard's math department is currently asleep when I make this assertion. Cases like these make compatibilism seem obviously true. Incompatibilists respond that there are two senses of ability at play here. Sure, in one sense, we do not need to know if the chair of Harvard's mathematics department is currently awake in order to know that he is able to solve the equation 2+2=4. So, ability claims have a reading in which present circumstances are irrelevant. Yet, they insist, there is another reading where it is false that he is able to solve this equation. Here, they employ the opportunity distinction. If you insist that there is only one reading of the term 'ability' then incompatibilitsts in the literature who employ the opportunity distinction have already admitted defeat. The entire argument to defend incompatibilism through the ability+opportunity distinction is to claim that the term 'able' is ambiguous.

So, if we are following the line of argument in the literature that actually employs the ability/opportunity distinction, then we must claim that the term 'able' is ambiguous.

Whether or not adding opportunities to the debate helps the incompatibilist depends upon whether they can show that the term 'able' is ambiguous. I am trying to argue that there is no reason to claim that their is an ambiguity in the concept of ability, but there is an ambiguity in what it is an ability to do. We can refer to the ability to simply run a 100m, which we all know that UB has. In this sense, it does not matter if he is awake or asleep. We all know that UB is able to run a 100m. We do not claim that we are unsure whether UB is able to run a 100m because we don't know if he is currently asleep. Yet, maybe there is another sense of 'able' one that takes into account circumstances. But, what is it to be able to run a 100m in one's current circumstances? It seems that it just is to carry out a plan of action (intention) that results in running a 100m. Defenders of the opportunity distinction have to deny this. Otherwise, they have not shown that there are two senses of 'ability'. So, here's my challenge. Provide a case where an agent can carry out a plan of action that results in her running a 100m in her present circumstances even though she lacks the ability to run a 100m in her circumstances. Alternatively, provide a case where someone has the ability to run a 100m in her present circumstances even though she cannot carry out a plan of action that results in her running a 100m in her present circumstances. I don't think either of these things can be done. If there are no such cases, then the reply to dispositional compatibilism that rests upon opportunities fails. Since those who employ 'opportunities' already admit that there is a sense of able that is consistent with compatibilism, if they cannot show that the term 'able' is ambiguous they have admitted defeat to the compatibilist. Yet, while her opponents have convinced Vihvelin that there are two different senses of 'ability' she should not have been so easily swayed.

Hi Charles,

Thanks for the additional follow-up. Thinking about our disagreement has been productive. A quick and final clarification, and then I’m going to read your most recent post.

When I claimed that one could interpret “UB has the ability to A” in terms of UB’s past success, I was not making a claim about evidence, and neither was I making a claim about the ability itself. I was making a claim about the “having of” relation, assuming that it is a relation.

In so doing, I was also assuming that there is a distinction between:

(a) What abilities are, constitutively or metaphysically

(b) What condition(s) must be in place in order for something to have an ability

(c) What condition(s) must be in place in order for something to successfully exercise an ability

Metaphysically speaking, an ability is not independent of what that ability produces when it is exercised. For instance, the ability to run is, constitutively or metaphysically, the ability to produce a rather specific effect (i.e., an instance of running).

And again metaphysically speaking, the condition(s) that must be in place in order for something to possess a particular ability is (are) distinct from the constitutive features of that ability. For example, in order for Usain Bolt to possess the ability to run he must meet some condition, C, but the fact of his meeting that condition is not identical with that ability nor with his exercising it on any given occasion.

Hope that helps!

Michael, The reason I think you are conflating epistemology with metaphysics stems from cases like the Flash Gordon case. Isn't it clear that waking up with those powers I now have the ability to run a world class 100m prior to successfully doing so? If so, the ability to run a world class 100m cannot consist in having successfully done so in the past. Yet, it may be the case that our evidence for claiming that UB can run a world class 100m is that he has successfully done so in the past and nothing has relevantly changed about his intrinsic properties.

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