Aug 22, 2011

Free Will and Determinism, Introduction

Free Will has been an important and controversial topic with regards to philosophy in general, theology in particular. Given the amount of thought and writing that has been dedicated to Free Will, there lacks an agreed upon conception of what it actually is. There are elements of Free Will that are agreed upon, such as the notion that the existence of Free Will confers responsibility, most often of a moral nature, on agents which have it.

Determinism is another philosophical doctrine which states, roughly, that the states of future propositions are determined by the states of past propositions. Determinism is most commonly associated with causal determinism: that all events have causes such that the event could have been predicted from sufficient knowledge of the cause. This type of determinism has been mused about since the Ancient Greeks, but gained strength with Newton’s Classical Mechanics. It is illustrated by Laplace’s Demon by stating that if one knows everything about the state of the universe at a given time, along with the rules that govern the universe, then one can predict any future state of the universe. One common thread among different types of determinism is that, given initial conditions, there is only one possible way for things to unfold. That is, it is not possible for things to turn out differently than they have, as they were determined by prior conditions.

With the apparent causal determinism implied by Classical Mechanics, many saw issues with determinism and Free Will. Various arguments have suggested that, if some form of determinism is true, then Free Will is not. Note that this is irrespective of the issue of whether or not determinism or Free Will actually exist, just that they cannot co-exist. Those who support such arguments are known as incompatibilists and those that refute such arguments are compatibilists.

If there exists no clear definition or conception of Free Will, then how can it be used in any sort of logical argument or philosophical discussion? It can’t. At least not if one expects to have any sort of constructive conversation. Historically incompatibilist have taken the initiative, presenting arguments that attempt to show that Free Will and determinism cannot coexist (are incompatible). In doing so, they have accepted the burden of defining exactly what those concepts are. These arguments at least give us a glimpse as to what Free Will may be, though many compatibilist refutations rest upon the notion that Free Will is other than what has been described.

Incompatibilist arguments can be organized into two categories: the alternate possibilities and the source model arguments. The alternate possibilities (or Garden of Forking paths) suggests, roughly, that:

  1. If a person acts of her own free will, then she could have done otherwise.

  2. If determinism is true, no one can do otherwise than one actually does.

  3. Therefore, if determinism is true, no one acts of her own free will.

Whereas the Source Model argument states:

  1. A person acts of her own free will only if she is its ultimate source.

  2. If determinism is true, no one is the ultimate source of her actions.

  3. Therefore, if determinism is true, no one acts of her own free will.

In more contemporary times, these arguments can be rolled-up into an argument known as the consequence argument:

  1. No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.

  2. No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).

  3. Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.

The combined power of the “facts of the past” and the “laws of nature” work not only to limit our possible options, as with the Alternate Possibilities argument, but also ensure that the ultimate source of our actions do not end with us, as with the Source Model argument. Note that there is no mention of Free Will in the consequence argument; it’s implied. Essentially, there is an implicit premise that states: “If anyone has Free Will, then they have power over some facts of the future” and the implicit conclusion that states: “Therefore, no one has Free Will, since no one has power over any facts of the future.”

Refutations have come in various forms. Some refute the definition of Free Will as presented and attempt to present a definition that can coexist with determinism as presented. Some argue with the presentation of determinism, especially with regards to the Consequence Argument. Some have attacked the inferences made by the arguments.

Others have addressed the topic from practical, rather than philosophical means. I intend, in subsequent posts, to discuss some of these refutations, namely:


Shripathi Kamath said...

Welcome, and this looks promising, Democurus. Can I assume that in the posts to come you shall be using formalism in your arguments as well?

Ron Krumpos said...

“Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth...between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

Democurus said...

I do plan on introducing some formalism here, at least as far as I'm familiar with. I've basically had to teach myself propositional, predicate, and higher-level formal systems, and I only like to post that which I'm comfortable with. I have several ideas in mind, but formal logic can be a bit ... "dry" so I wanted to get the informal, the "meat" if you will before I provide the "skeleton".

Regarding the first part of your comment, I agree that our Will is limited by constraints outside of our control, and I intend to address this. Simply, Free Will is often used synonymously with Free Action, and this has resulted in some fallacious thinking.

Regarding the second part of your comment, starting with: "The key to release is mystical realization." I'm not sure I understand what you are saying here. Could you elaborate what you mean by:

mystical realization
divine unity
the gate between heaven and Earth
universal consciousness


Ron Krumpos said...


"Mystical realization" is a suprarational awareness of the essential unity of existence, i.e. divine unity. "The gate between Heaven and Earth" is symbolic of the seeming separation of transcendent and immanent essence. Universal consciousness reaches beyond our awareness of self and other. What essence? Call it Love, Grace, Spirit, vital energy, or whatever. What is is not changed by what it is called.

These are concepts which are explained in greater detail in my ebook on comparative mysticism. It highlights the similarities between Sufism, the Kabbalah, and mysticism of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. You do not have to be religious to be a mystic, however; I was introduced to mysticism by a Nobel physicist who was an atheist.

B. von Traven said...

Bauer, Part 1:

I have two suggestions.

1. IS THE ISSUE (RE FREE WILL) ABOUT “DETERMINISM”? First, until the 20th Century, the debate over “free will” has concerned Free Will (FW) and Determinism (D). But that is no longer the case.

Determinism is (roughly) the thesis that all events are necessary (i.e., all events are such that when they occur they must occur and no other event could occur). Historically, there are at least three “sources” of the notion of D, and thus three varieties of D. One concerns prior truth. Another concerns Divine Foreknowledge.

Finally, and most importantly, is the form of D that concerns the ancient notion of “universal causation”—i.e., the notion that all events are necessary because all events are caused (because all events are regulated by natural laws). This perspective became dominant with Newton and Classical Physics. (It was overthrown by quantum physics.)

It is important to note—and you don’t seem to do this—that, at this point, the plausibility of D is very much in question. The first two kinds are very problematical, for reasons I won’t pursue here. But, as things now stand, scientists reject even CD, for, with the emergence of the dominant view of quantum phenomena (in physics), they now suppose that there are some events, at the subatomic level, that are uncaused; that is, they are not “determined” by laws; they are random. Hence, it is not true that “all events are caused.”

CD is false. And so many philosophers (typically of the “incompatibilist” variety) have noted that, for any given action, it is either caused or it is not caused. If it is caused, then it is unfree for familiar reasons. But if it is NOT caused, then, again, it is not free. Random actions are not free actions. (The latter view is associated with Hume: to be free an action must be caused in a certain way.)

Let me put it this way: even if D is false, there is an issue of whether “FW” exists. For instance, some have argued that the notion is internally incoherent. You might take a look at the work of the younger Strawson.

B. von Traven said...

Bauer, part 2:

2. DO WE NEED A DEFINITION OF FW? Though it is true that, if we are to discuss this topic, we need to be clear about the meaning of (the statement that someone has) Free Will, it is false to suppose that we need a full and uncontroversial definition—as you seem to imply.

Notoriously, words/concepts in natural language are difficult to define. But it seems clear what a “good definition” of X would be. Suppose we seek to define the term “bachelor.” Why might start by asking what must be true of someone if they are to count as a bachelor? Well, they must be unmarried. In philosophers’ parlance, we now say that “being unmarried” is a “necessary” but not “sufficient” condition of a person’s being a bachelor. That is, to count as a bachelor, one must be unmarried; but being unmarried does not by itself establish that one is a bachelor. It is insufficient, though necessary.

Suppose we proceed with our analysis. We might now say, to count as a bachelor, a person must also be male. And so we now say, “being male” is another “necessary” though not sufficient condition for bachelorhood. Obviously, the goal here is to find the set of “necessary and sufficient conditions” for bachelorhood. If we could locate such conditions, they would be the “definition” of “bachelor.”

Now, in fact, it is difficult to arrive at an uncontroversial list of the nec. and suff. conditions for bachelorhood—something that could be said perhaps about every concept/word in natural language. Wittgenstein famously argued that we are looking for something that does not exist. See is discussion of the concept of a “game.”

I agree with him. But this does not mean that there are no necessary conditions (and sufficient conditions) that can be identified for a given concept. It seems very clear that “being unmarried” is indeed a nec. condition for bachelorhood. But it is not sufficient. (After all, my sister is unmarried but she is not a bachelor.) Still, if we are clear that “being unmarried” is a nec. condition for B., then should we discover that Person P is not unmarried, we can conclude that they are not a bachelor. And so, despite lacking the full def. of B., we have enough in our analysis to exclude the possibility of my sister being a bachelor.

Similarly, though there is no uncontroversial set of nec. and suff conditions for “a freely performed action,” it seems clear that, for an action to count as freely performed, at least this much is necessary: that the person could have done otherwise than that action. Philosophers have largely been in agreement that this is indeed a necessary condition for “free will.” And thus they have agreed that, if some doctrine implies that persons can never do otherwise than they do, then the truth of that doctrine precludes free will.

Now, causal determinism (CD) is often interpreted to be that sort of doctrine, for it seems to say that all events are necessary (i.e., all events are such that when they occur they must occur and nothing else could occur) owing to the complete governance of events by natural laws (i.e., causes).

(Hobbes and) Hume and their followers take the classic “compatibilist” position. They insist that, despite the truth of CD, individuals (can have) free will. So Joe’s action A was freely performed. But how can that be said given that, under the circumstances of Joe’s action (including all of the psychological, genetic, physiological circumstances), only one event could have occurred (as per the scientist’s conception of nature)?

Answer: if Joe had had a different character, then he would have chosen differently.

--Roy Bauer

Democurus said...


Part 1, response:

I appreciate your comprehensive analysis. If I have left things out, it is most likely because I intend on addressing them later on; this post is merely an introduction into the topic. I would like to make a few things clear, though:

"It is important to note—and you don’t seem to do this—that, at this point, the plausibility of D is very much in question."

That is correct, I have not talked about the independent plausibility of either D or FW; I feel that it's irrelevant at the moment:

"Note that this is irrespective of the issue of whether or not determinism or Free Will actually exist, just that they cannot co-exist."

My understanding, and please correct me if I'm wrong, is that to talk about the relationship between two propositions, such as D or FW, we are not required to address the truth of either proposition. I can fruitfully talk about arguments that state: "D or FW or neither" without needing to talk about the objective truth or validity of either D or FW.

Now, talking about this relationship is usually a stepping stone to proving some other conclusion. For example, if I show that D and FW are contrary to each other and I can show that one exists, then I will have proved that the other does not.

Or, alternatively, and to tip my hand a bit, if I show that they are contrary, then I can demonstrate the logical unsoundness of any philosophy that asserts their consistency. For example, a philosophy that asserts that entities can have "Divine Foreknowledge" yet still allowing for Free Will. I intend on addressing this later, but I think it's important to establish, or at least talk about, whether or not such concepts are compatible.

"[E]ven if D is false, there is an issue of whether 'FW' exists."

I agree completely. I intend to address this point more fully. As I have seen, compatibilists have spent a great deal of effort disproving incompatibilist arguments, but this does not prove the existence of FW, it does not even prove that some form of D and FW are compatible, just that some given incompatibilist argument is unsound in some way. What is lacking is a positive argument either for compatibility or for FW.

Democurus said...


Part 2, response:

I agree. To tip my hand again, I was going to conclude this series of posts by acknowledging that, even if we haven't fully defined the necessary and sufficient conditions for Free Will and even if incompatibilist arguments don't conclusively rule out Free Will in some other form, a sound incompatibilist argument would, nevertheless, rule out what attributes Free Will can have, based on the attributes it assignes Free Will in its premises.

However, I might have to disagree with regards to being able to do otherwise is a necessary action. At least some other's have proposed scenarios where a person could have not done otherwise, though this may merely be a semantic issue between "choosing" and "doing."

I will address this, and the issue of the compatibilist position of Hume (et. al.)

Again, thank you for your analysis.

B. von Traven said...

You say:
My understanding, and please correct me if I'm wrong, is that to talk about the relationship between two propositions, such as D or FW, we are not required to address the truth of either proposition. I can fruitfully talk about arguments that state: "D or FW or neither" without needing to talk about the objective truth or validity of either D or FW.
Yes, if one's goal is to "talk about the relationship," this is true.
But philosophy is not hostile to common sense. We need to ask, "why are we discussing this relationship?" If D is not true, then it ceases to be central to the discussion of FW.
The issue (I mean, among those who suppose that philosophy should strive to answer real questions, solve real problems) not longer concerns D. It does still, however, concern the scientist's conception of nature, which now includes causation and random events (at the subatomic level).
I worry about the trivialization of philosophy implied by a conception of its issues such that they need not be justified as being somehow important to us. Philosophy is not chess--no more than medicine is just "causing things" in the body.

Democurus said...

But we've referenced other forms of D other than CD and even if you and I can rule them out, there are plenty of people that adhere to worldviews with allow for some form of D, worldviews on which serious and significant actions are based upon.

If it can be shown that such worldviews are contradictory then I think this is an application of answering real questions and solving real problems or, if it does not do so directly, at least present itself as a tool for doing those things.

You've dismissed the first two forms of D that you presented as "problematic" and have focused only on the third. Yet there are people that adhere to things such as divine foreknowledge.

I agree that it is problematic, and one of the ways in which it is problematic is in regards to its compatibility with FW, a common aspect of the same worldviews that also adhere to divine foreknowledge. In fact, it is precisely such problems that I intend to ultimately address.

Perhaps it's beating a dead horse, and I'm doing nothing more than adding a drop into the ocean of incompatibilist arguments. But you have to start somewhere.

B. von Traven said...

I don't think you're talking about "doing philosophy" (as we say in the biz). Philosophy, at least in central cases, involves addressing issues, puzzles, problems, that one has, not that others have. You seem to me to be interested in a form of cultural anthropology, not philosophy. One might be fascinated by the Hopi notion of the past even though one in no sense shares in that conception.
If CD is false, then it is no longer a threat to FW; so we move on. Is there another form of D that is plausible?
I didn't dismiss the other forms of D; rather, I alluded to difficulties in those doctrines. (A quick point of clarification: "divine foreknowledge" is not a form of D. Rather, arguably, it implies a form of D. That it does so is very much in dispute.) Generally speaking, within the philosophical community, the form of D taken most seriously (for good reasons, I think) is Causal D--not be cause CD is true (evidently, it is not), but because scientists continue to view nature as largely causal, and the threat to FW continues to exist even if not every event is "caused."
From a philosophical point of view, inquiries are wedded to logic, and the fact that many or most people believe in God and Divine Foreknowledge is not of philosophical interest--it is a fallacy to suppose that the popularity of an idea supports it. The issue is: are there good reasons for supposing that God exists?
I should soften this stance a bit, of course. "Philosophy of religion" is precisely an area of philosophy that explores issues that are no longer pressing for most (e.g., the so-called problem of divine foreknowledge). And much scholarship in the history of philosophy concerns issues that often do not continue to exist as they once did.
ON the other hand, I do believe that philosophers in those areas firmly believe that, by examining those "old" issues, we are in some sense exploring the "mind" of the culture. We are exploring ourselves in some sense.
--Just a few thoughts.

Democurus said...

I suppose I'm not in a position to debate whether or not I'm "doing philosophy" or "anthropology" or even whether what I'm doing is important or constructive or new or innovative or if it even has a point.

Whatever it is, it is (or is leading to) my thoughts on the matter. Ultimately I intend to argue that divine foreknowledge implies a form of D that is incompatible with Free Will.

Could I have simply started on that point? Yes. I could have simply presented an argument in formal logic, using the appropriate symbols, and left it at that. I've done so elsewhere.

However, I didn't think to do that would have been fair to the subject at hand. In my past dealings with this and similar topics, I have been undebatably informal. I consider this forum to be slightly more public and accessible and I wanted to do some more indepth research into the issue, to see what other arguments and counter-arguments there were. The last thing I wanted to do was to just simply present an argument that had an readily accessible refutation.

I agree that an issue is: are there good reasons for supposing that God exists?

In investigating that, I think it also important to consider: are there good reasons for for supposing that God doesn't exist?

And that is what I am attempting to do.

I was unaware that the issue of divine foreknowledge was no longer a concern. My dealings with theists on the matter seems to suggest that it is, though perhaps my experience is atypical.

Ultimately, I may be beating a dead horse. Perhaps I chose a bad topic in which to start contributing to this blog. If so, then I accept that. I think it would be awkward to stop this current line of thought, so I'm going to finish up what I've presented.

I hope I do not appear to be antagonistic toward you, I do appreciate the feed back. I'm truly do want to know if I've gotten anything technically wrong, especially with regards to reasoning and inferences. I know you're reviewing this upon request, and I wish to convey my appreciation.