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It was a pleasure watching Al’s presentation – thank you.

Al says that indeterminism is associated with our decision making processes, but I don’t understand how Al’s model makes a connection between the agent and indeterminism. In other words, Al says there’s sort of a neural roulette wheel that exists within a physical brain, and the wheel effectively controls whether a person chooses A or B in an indeterministic manner. So my question is: is that really the kind of “freedom” that we’re wanting to show exists for an agent? Yes, Al’s model supports the idea that the agent’s decision is indetermined, however it implies the agent doesn’t control the decision, and the decision is simply random in nature. In order to claim that free will exists in the “strong/ambitious” sense, I’m thinking that we need to credit the agent with controlling the decision. In other words, we need to equate indeterminism with the life associated with the agent, instead of equating indeterminism with randomness.

Thanks so much Thomas! This was very interesting.

The ending of the lecture is a bit rushed (no doubt by time constraints), but I am a little puzzled by the conclusion.

A few years ago our department had Kane as a guest speaker, and with his own emphasis on self-forming-actions (SFAs) our dialogue went quickly to early childhood, the role of choice in forming personality, and the like. Our impression was that once again luck had a huge role even there, given Kane's (then) reliance on quantum phenomena to "decide" the dual-choice outcome even if young formative intentions stood fully behind those logical possibilities. But what I take Mele as saying here is that any such indeterministic luck takes a back-seat to what stands behind a child's intentional stance to do this or that that also may be formative to personality (C. A. Campbell started this line of argument back in the 50s, thus beginning the retreat of the responsibility impact of libertarian FW to formative places in personality reflected in Kane's work and this lecture). However, it seems to me that would only bring into play Levy-like considerations of constitutive luck to determine those in the first place.

I know this was not a technically-focused lecture, and Mele does a great job canvassing huge landscapes of the FW problem in a mere 45 minutes. Hats off to him on that!

Very nice talk, thanks Thomas. Agreeing with James and Alan, I didn't see where Mele overcomes the basic problem of luck for the libertarian: that indeterminism provides alternative possibilities, but in doing so it makes the final choice or action a matter of chance, thus not up to the agent. At least not *more* up to the agent than under determinism, which is what the libertarian thinks is necessary for us to be free and responsible.

In his historical account of how we might become morally responsible, Mele suggests that the luck injected by indeterminism isn't a barrier to assigning (nascent) MR to a four or five year old. But for libertarians indeterminism isn't a bug to be worked around, but that which allows us to be MR. So I don't see that Mele has established the possible credibility or coherence of libertarianism as a positive thesis about how indeterminism could make us more free and responsible than under determinism, which I take it was the aim of this talk.

One thing to note in the scenario in which the dad silently gives credit to his four year old for resisting the impulse to pull his sister's hair: wanting to praise (and blame) arises spontaneously in the father as a means to shape the child's behavior (even though dad may not consciously appreciate this fact). So we can see the origins of apparently backwards-looking evaluations in a naturally-evolved consequentialism.

Sorry to be slow in responding. I wish I had more time for this. James, you mentioned an agent’s controlling his decision. It would be nice to have an account of that so that we have a good idea what we’re talking about. I’ve written a paper about this sort of thing – “Direct Control,” forthcoming in Philosophical Studies. I’ll send you the typescript if you like. For reasons that I’ve set out in, e.g., Free Will and Luck, I believe that libertarians should take an event-causal route. There will be some cross-world luck at the time of decision in the case of decisions that are indeterministically caused by their proximal causes. What’s the best argument that such luck precludes deciding freely? Maybe I’ve replied to it somewhere. If not, I won’t be replying to it here. Solutions to complicated problems take more space and time than I have here and now.

Al, I understand your worry. I see more elbow room at that location than Neil Levy does. Upbringing and environment certainly have a major impact on antecedent probabilities of choices and other actions, but that itself is compatible with choosing freely. I don’t think I’ve responded to Neil in particular on this. These 2 papers of mine bear on the issue: “Libertarianism and Human Agency,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 87 (2013): 72-92 and “Is What You Decide Ever up to You?” in I. Haji and J. Caouette, eds. Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2013), 74-97. I won’t go into it here. Those papers are more directly aimed at the worry Tom voices.

Tom, you’re mistaken about the aim of the talk. It’s signaled by the subtitle: “or Why Event-causal Libertarians Should Prefer My Daring Libertarian View to Robert Kane’s View.” The talk’s aim is to show that event-causal libertarians should prefer the former view to the latter – that the former view is superior to the latter. On what indeterminism can open up for libertarians that determinism can’t, see Free Will and Luck, pp. 95-102. The two 2013 papers I mentioned also are relevant.

P.S. A version of that talk will be published in *Philosophy*.

Al, thanks for your reply.

If a decision to choose A or B is made based upon luck, is that one and the same as a decision to choose A or B based upon randomness?

I think that question highlights the root of the issue – what’s the difference between luck and randomness?

If you believe that life is fundamentally indeterministic in nature, and you believe the effect of life all around your body and within your body is a matter of luck (which I believe is true), then it becomes fair to say there’s a difference between luck and randomness. The concepts aren’t one and the same. In other words, we can believe there’s luck (not randomness) associated with our decisions because there’s life associated with our decisions. And finally, if we believe that the agent (as difficult as that is to define) has emergent properties that affect his decisions, then we can believe that the life associated with the agent (level) mixes together with the luck we experience from other life (other system levels), and together as a system we make the decision in an indeterministic manner, whether to choose A or B.

Based upon that point of view, it becomes reasonable to believe the agent acts freely (since the agent system level is a component part of what exerts indeterministic control). Yes, it’s fair to say that the agent (level) isn’t the sole factor exerting control, but since the agent is one of the factors, it’s fair to say the agent (level) has a degree of freedom.

I’m thinking that luck doesn’t preclude deciding freely; instead, luck is a component part of deciding freely.

In order to make my previous comment clearer, I need to add the following: People tend to believe indeterminism and randomness are one and the same. Instead, I believe randomness doesn’t exist in reality (it only exists as an abstract human concept), and the root of indeterminism is life.

I'm still hankering for an explanation in short compass of how indeterminism could afford more control (and thus more freedom and responsibility) to an agent than under determinism. Gregg Caruso suggests in his nice Philosophy Bites interview (link below) that on event causal libertarianism, indeterminism doesn't help since random events don't preserve the agent control necessary for free action (the worries I expressed about Al's account). And Gregg says that agent causal libertarianism, although a better option, isn't plausible since it posits sui generis agents that cause actions in (thus far) mysterious ways. It would be nice to hear a bite-sized response as to why Gregg's skepticism about libertarianism is wrong: that there is a naturalistically plausible basis for the possibility that indeterminism affords more control than determinism. Anyone care to give it a shot?

Here's Gregg's interview:


In order to show that indeterminism affords more control to an agent than determinism, science will need to first discover an event that’s indeterministic in nature, while at the same time the event isn’t random. During the process of making that discovery, science will likely show that a new physical force (i.e., a force which doesn’t result simply from a direct sum of preexisting forces) is an emergent property of some entity (i.e., an element of life). After that’s achieved, science will have sufficient reason to believe that some indeterministic events are not random in nature, which will thereby allow philosophers to effectively link indeterminism with free will in the strong/ambitious sense. The first step in that process, is to build arguments that support the hypothesis, thereby helping to motivate science to take the second step; the discovery of hard evidence.

Here are two ideas which I believe help to build arguments that support the hypothesis that an event may be indeterministic while at the same time the event isn’t random:

1. When a person learns something new, the neural wiring in their brain is physically changed. In order for those neural wiring changes to result in the person gaining intelligence, there must be intelligence associated with the physical forces that change the neural wiring (otherwise the person wouldn’t learn anything). It’s reasonable to believe that said intelligence isn’t innate to the four fundamental forces postulated by physics (e.g., gravity). Instead, it’s more reasonable to believe that said intelligence is an emergent property of our thoughts, thereby supporting the hypothesis that our thoughts exert new emergent forces. Intuitively, that makes sense, because we all know from experience that thinking causes learning, and without thinking, our level of learning is greatly reduced. In summary, it’s reasonable to believe that our thoughts cause us to learn, and therefore our thoughts exert new emergent forces which intelligently change our neural wiring on the fly. If our thoughts exert new emergent forces, then those forces aren’t likely determined by other preexisting forces. The reason I say that, is because forces located in different fields don’t add directly with one another. In other words, the event (i.e., the new force at the thought level) is indeterministic, while at the same time it isn’t random for two reasons: 1 because it’s caused by the life (neurons) associated with the agent, and 2. because random forces wouldn’t result in intelligent changes to the neural wiring.

2. Based upon experience, each one of us knows that one thought within our mind has the ability to exert control or have an effect upon other thoughts within our mind. So let’s back up and ask ourselves what a thought really is. I think you’ll agree that it’s fair to say that the interaction between two singular neurons isn’t one and the same entity as a thought. Instead, a thought emerges from of a wave of neural activity wherein billions of neurons interact with one another simultaneously thereby causing the thought. So if that’s a reasonable model of what a thought is, and if one thought is able to exert control upon another thought, then there must be something happening at the neural wave level that exerts control. If at this point you’re wanting to shift gears and claim that there’s no control exerted from the thought level (i.e., it’s simply an illusion and all of the control is truly exerted from the neural level), then you’re effectively claiming that one thought, as we’ve defined a thought, doesn’t truly have an effect on another thought, which contradicts your daily experience. My point is that some type of new force emerges at the “thought level” and said force exerts control during interaction with other thoughts. In addition, new emergent forces at the thought level affect activity at the neural level (there’s some kind of transcendence across system levels that occurs, and I’m not claiming to understand it). So if our thoughts exert new emergent forces, then therein exists support for the hypothesis that our thoughts have an element of indeterminism to them, and our thoughts aren’t controlled solely by the four fundamental forces postulated by physics. In addition, we know from daily experience that our thoughts aren’t random, which supports the hypothesis that some indeterministic events aren’t random in nature.

If 1 and 2 are reasonable, then perhaps science will become motivated to discover evidence which supports the hypothesis that an event may be indeterministic while at the same time the event isn’t random.

Here are two experiments that neuroscience could develop in order to discover hard evidence which supports the hypothesis:

The first experiment would be to show that two neurons located in physically separate areas of a brain interact with one another faster than is physically possible, given the limited speed of synaptic propagation rates. In other words, neuroscience could show that neurons “uplink” to the thought level in real time (i.e., with extremely short delays) and communicate with other neurons *very* quickly (i.e., with immeasurably short propagation delays). By demonstrating that, neuroscience will support the theory that human thoughts exist at a higher level of emergence, and our thoughts are capable of providing parallel communications between billions of neurons with billions of other neurons *simultaneously*, not simply one neuron communicating serially through neurons that it’s directly wired to. The experiment will effectively provide evidence that human thoughts exert new forces that affect the neural level, thereby showing that an event (i.e., the forces associated with the thought) may be indeterministic while at the same time the event isn’t random.

The second experiment that neuroscience may develop to support the hypothesis, is they’ll develop a method for monitoring neural activity wherein insufficient “waves” of neural activity are shown to exist. In other words, they’ll demonstrate that neurons *must* be up-linking to the thought level by showing that there aren’t sufficient large and distinct waves of neural activity occurring within a brain to produce human thoughts. They’ll show that the activity within a brain is largely distributed and apparently uncontrolled by coordinated waves of activity (i.e., the brain simply appears to be full of noise, and there is very little coordinated activity going on that electronic instrumentation and subsequent computer analysis can detect). By doing that, neuroscience will provide support for the idea that “waves of neural activity” don’t flow necessarily across *3-D regions* of the brain; instead, waves of neural activity flow primarily across different *system levels* of the brain (i.e., from the neural level to the thought level, and vice versa).

Tom, in summary, I believe science will discover that indeterministic events aren’t always random in nature (i.e., they’ll discover that indeterminism is associated with life) and by that realization, science will acknowledge that that humans (and other forms of life) have a degree of freedom.

I welcome your comments and better ideas.

Following up on my previous comment, I can only conclude that there's no succinct plausible naturalistic account that Flickerers (whether libertarian or not) are willing to provide here on this blog of how indeterminism can do better than determinism in affording agents control, freedom and responsibility. This increases my suspicion that there is no such account. I can see how indeterminism might break the causal chain in providing genuine alternative possibilities, but not how it confers more or better control by making the agent indeterministically caused, or an indeterministic selector among the possibilities.

Hi James,

Assuming that science does find all of what you set forth to be true, it still isn't clear to me how an indeterministic yet non-random factor confers more or a superior kind of control to the agent than under determinism. How does the emergence of new forces that aren't themselves the result of pre-existing forces make the agent a better controller? In any case, about your proposal Al (Mele) says in his paper "Libertarianism and Human Agency":

"As some people conceive of free action, it may require something impossible - an agent's having a kind of control over what he does that is indeterministic and leaves nothing to chance. It may be claimed that when and only when an agent exercises this kind of control is it truly up to him what he does and that agents act freely only when it is truly up to them what they do. Why is the kind of control at issue impossible? Because indeterministic control in the absence of chance is impossible." (p. 15)

If there's always chance (randomness) involved in indeterminism, this seems to me to undercut an agent's control, not augment it. But perhaps someone can enlighten me on why this isn't necessarily the case.


In answer to your question; If an agent’s actions are controlled by the life within the agent, then fundamentally the agent is a “better controller” than if everything were controlled solely by the four fundamental forces postulated by physics. Life exerts said control via new emergent forces.

Since there are multiple living system levels comprising the agent, all of which exert some control and thereby affect the actions of the agent, the actions of the agent aren’t totally up to the agent. In other words, the agent (level) is only partially responsible and partially free to determine his actions. The fact that new emergent forces exist at the agent level, however, bring a degree of freedom to the agent.

Life is indeterministic, but it’s not random. That’s an idea we really need to get a handle on.

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