The Big Bang Made Me Do It

In what will hopefully be an ongoing series, Will Wilkinson tackles some weaknesses in Rand's Objectivist philosophy. First on the chopping block: determinism and free will.

Will is right to criticize Objectivists for assuming the very thing they are attempting to prove. As he puts it:

The Objectivist may often be heard to argue that one cannot deny free-will without assuming it. But this begs the question. My argument is that our experience of our own agency is what it is, and that one of the things it is not is a source of information about the general nature of cause and effect. Unless the Objectivist can adduce some independent and compelling reasons to believe (and not simply assert again and again) that the experience of our own agency carries information about the fundamental, metaphysical nature of causation, we have exactly zero reason to believe premise (1) and thus to reject determinism. On the basis of our experience of volition, we are licensed to the conclusion that we can make things happen and that we have a certain kind of contol over ourselves. We are not licensed to any beliefs about the ultimate character of causation. I cannot open my mouth and with my measured breath intentionally deny that I can make things happen and have a kind of control over myself without assuming what I have denied. I can, however, consistently deny indeterminism because no information about indeterminism is made available to me in my experience of my denial.

But I think Will's criticism is much weaker when he argues for compatibilism - the position that free will is compatible with determinism. It may be compatible--I don't know--but Will's argument is not very convincing.

The metaphysical question simply has nothing to do with the questions of whether I can make choices, intentionally control my own actions, or be responsible for the effects of which my actions are a cause. I can make choices, be in control, and be responsible. This is, I believe, darn near to self-evident. And that's all having free will amounts to.

Those who find determinism so disturbing reject it because it does weaken our faith that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions. If a man kills his wife, not out of any free choice of his own, but as the necessary result of a long chain of causation spanning back from before he was even born, how can we really blame this man for moral wrongdoing? We don't hold small children, animals, simple robots, or insane people morally responsible for their actions because they do not have the cognitive capacity to make these kinds of moral decisions. They do not understand the consequences and ramifications of their actions. And even if it appeared to them as if they were making these decisions themselves, we still would not hold them responsible.

Now, we still might have good consequentialist reasons for punishing amoral actors. We scold or punish young children for touching a hot stove in order to condition the children to avoid this behavior. Pavlov did the same thing with his dog. And even in the case of an insane person who does not respond well to conditioning, we still have good reason to remove that person from society, so as not to cause any more harm to anyone else.

The criminal justice system makes these kinds of distinctions all the time, and most people don't object. We see good reason for treating young children and the mentally disabled differently than healthy adults. But at the same time, we are hesitant to grant this excuse to the grey cases - teenagers, the borderline retarded, the emotionally disturbed. We don't want to give people a free ride, an excuse to act wrongly when they are capable of restraining themselves.

To find out that all people--even healthy adults--are really no more responsible than pre-programmed robots, animals acting out of instinct--is deeply disturbing to our moral sensibilities. Can we really go on--as Will claims--believing in the myth of free will while acknowledging the truth of determinism simply because it appears that free will is true? No, I don't think we can, for precisely the same reason that we can't go on believing indeterminism is true simply because it appears to us that our actions were chosen and not caused. Determinism may be compatible with free will, but Will needs to give us a better reason for believing this is so.

Share this

Hayek touched upon this

Hayek touched upon this issue in The Sensory Order, this article sums it up nice.

"‘Should’ implies

"‘Should’ implies ‘can’ if you have free will."

Nonsense. Someone 'should' discover a cure for AIDS, even though AIDS cannot be cured.

>>Nonsense. Someone should

>>Nonsense. Someone should discover a cure for AIDS, even though AIDS cannot be cured.<<

Because AIDS presently has no cure, does not mean it should not, or will never have a cure.

Thanks for the article,

Thanks for the article, Dennis.

Would it make you happier if

Would it make you happier if I called it "will" instead of "free will". I don't distinguish between the two. It's not determinism that makes a difference between the billiard ball and the human. I don't believe that billiard balls and humans follow different physical laws. Billiard balls seem as indetermistic as any human. Try smashing one to bits with a sledgehammer. Not likely any two would behave the same regardless of how exact you made the machine to crush them. The piles of pieces would be quite different. After all both billiard balls and humans exist in the same world. If determinism is a low level universal property of the universe then I would expect all macro level objects to share the same quality.

Choices can be made by "deterministic" systems like computers. A choice is still a choice even if there is no random aspect to it. Tom made a choice to push even if it is deterministic. He made a choice that is amenable to punishment. Tom just acted as a billard ball in your example. No amount of punishment would change the way his body acts under the influence of gravity.

We can hold something responsible for a effect regardless of whether it has free will or not. If the bearings on my motor are shot then they are responsible for the noise and I replace them.

BTW, I have no belief on whether the world actually is deterministic or indeterministic. In fact depending on the definition used I don't even know if we could even detect whether our world is or is not deterministic.

"By the way, if you wonder

"By the way, if you wonder why I always accuse you of being a Randian, this is why."

Why do you keep assuming you have a choice?

I believe we should treat

I believe we should treat people as if they have free will whether or not they do. The reason is even if determinism is true, people's pre-programming is conditional. They are rarely programmed to do something no matter what. Hence we can change their behavior by assigning negative consequences to undesirable actions. Its not simply a matter of Pavlovian training, its the fact that incentives are inputs into the programming.

I think that we intuit this connection, hence why we treat differently those whose minds are so screwed up that they don't even make conditional decisions. We are reluctant to give slack to the borderline cases because decreased punishment for borderline cases moves out the margin, encouraging those who take into account incentives, but only a tiny bit, to still do bad things.

Its a classic example of morals which we've evolved to intuit because they are effective. Our moral intuition understood the economic analysis of law before we did :).

"I believe we should treat

"I believe we should treat people as if they have free will whether or not they do. "

Why assume you have choice in this matter?

"The reason is even if determinism is true, people’s pre-programming is conditional."

No more so than a billiard ball.

"Hence we can change their behavior by assigning negative consequences to undesirable actions."

Again you're assuming choice.

I believe we should treat

I believe we should treat people as if they have free will whether or not they do."

Absent free will, what does "should" mean?

JTK, What does 'should'

JTK,

What does 'should' mean?!? Jeebus H. Christ! You're lucky so many of these folks are so patient. I barely know you, and all I want to do is knock a snot bubble outta your head.

~Michi

"What does ’should’

"What does ’should’ mean?!?"

Yeah, what does it mean to say someone should do something if they have no choice?

"By the way, if you wonder

"By the way, if you wonder why I always accuse you of being a Randian, this is why."

Don't the Austrians agree with me on this? Are they Randian?

It means even though you had

It means even though you had no choice but to put on that dirty, stinky t-shirt -- you really ought to have put on a clean one that doesn't repulse people so badly.

Now, if you ask the definition of another verb, I'll be forced to track you down and knock a snot bubble out of your head.

Later.

~Michi

"It means even though you

"It means even though you had no choice but to put on that dirty, stinky t-shirt – you really ought to have put on a clean one that doesn’t repulse people so badly."

That's self contradicting. In debate it is customary to point out such contradictions.

It means even though you had

It means even though you had no choice but to put on that dirty, stinky t-shirt – you really ought to have put on a clean one that doesn’t repulse people so badly.

Even though it has no choice in the matter, water ought to run uphill.

I’ll be forced to track

I’ll be forced to track you down and knock a snot bubble out of your head.

Do you mean "forced" in the sense that the laws of physics have ultimately determined that your hand (or some implement wielded by it) is destined to be brought to bear upside Kennedy's annoying head if he persists in engaging the contradictions he sees posted here?

...actually, it is stupid to

...actually, it is stupid to punish a child for touching a hot stove.
That's the stove's job.

Spontaneous order arises because people learn from experience what works and doesn't.
Now, you might scold a child before he touches the hot stove, in order to keep him from getting burned in the first place, but that's a different argument.

Well okay then, J.T. -- you

Well okay then, J.T. -- you sit there in the land of no free will in your dirty, stinkin' t-shirt with people running off shreiking the moment they catch wind of you and refrain from thinking 'gee, I wish I had the free will to put on a clean t-shirt, 'cause I really SHOULD have if I wanted to socialize with other human beings.':wall:

[I LOVE these little emoticons, btw!]

~Michi

Although, why that isn't an

Although, why that isn't an emoticon there. . . I have no idea. It's supposed to be the guy hitting his head in the wall.

"...you sit there in the

"...you sit there in the land of no free will..."

You're not following the conversation.

"Absent free will, what does

"Absent free will, what does "should" mean?" ~J.T.K.

I'm talking about the use of the word 'should' and the fact that should means the same gotdamn thing regardless of the existence of free will.

~Michi

But you're obviously wrong

But you're obviously wrong because "should" implies free will.

J.T., 'Should' implies 'can'

J.T., 'Should' implies 'can' if you have free will.

Had a nice reply took me an

Had a nice reply took me an hour to write but I didn't fill in the name and email so the browser lost it. Cleared up all the issues on this but heck I am not going to write it again this late at night.

Short outline of it is that:
Free will is improperly identified as "uncaused cause". This is wrong. Free will is caused. Every action requires a minimum of sensory input, knowledge, desires, etc. All of which are due to past causes such as evolution, learning, propagation of light waves, etc.
A cause and effect world is required for evolution to even generate a being that can make choices.
An totally indeterminist world would not allow evolution or even the hope that our actions would result in the desired results.
Thus determinism is actually more compatible with free will than indeterminism.

Brian Macker, I'm glad that

Brian Macker,

I'm glad that you gave us the shortened version, it didn't need to be any longer. Brevity is so under-rated these days. Then again some people like to argue :argue: and if you're to clear you might undermine the sport.:wink: Then they'd all have to take up juggling :juggle: and then where would we be. A nation of jugglers :juggle: with balls constantly flying threw the air. :dizzy: Makes a guy dizzy just thinking about it. Thanks for the bomb :bomb: of clarity.

I'm going to resist the urge to write a poem about unread books on nightstands. :beatnik:

Brian, If you're no less

Brian,

If you're no less determined than a billiard ball, why say you have free will and it doesn't? What sense does it make to say you should do something if only one course of action is possible?

If Tom pushes Dick off a building and Dick falls on Harry, we don't hold Dick responsible for any injury to Harry because Dick could not have chosen to do otherwise. But if Tom's actions are determined then he couldn't have chosen to do otherwise any more than Dick. In that cae saying Tom shouldn't have pushed Dick off the building makes as much sense as saying Dick shouldn't have fallen on Harry.

That last comment was by me.

That last comment was by me.

BilLee, Even my outline left

BilLee,
Even my outline left out some points I had made in the longer version. I wrote the outline in one minute. The point of the original was to clear up some of the mistakes being made by the non-compatiblists. It was not to give an answer to the ultimate meaning of life which I once had gotten the answer to in a drunk stupor but forgot to write down at the time. :dunce: The world will just have to go on suffering because I have since forgot :wall: and have given up drinking.

Correction: It was Dick who

Correction: It was Dick who acted as the billiard ball in the example.

So given a better

So given a better understanding of how the mind works you might choose to conclude that you have no choice?

I might understand that I

I might understand that I had no choice all along.

By the way, if you wonder why I always accuse you of being a Randian, this is why.

"I might understand that I

"I might understand that I had no choice all along."

In that case what would you have done with the evidence? Absent choice, what makes evidence good or bad, persuasive or unpersuasive?

Hi Micha, I didn't intend to

Hi Micha, I didn't intend to be presenting a positive argument in favor of compatibilism. Maybe I'll do so some time. All I wanted to say is that I don't think our practical and moral conduct has much of anything to do with deep assumptions about causality. Just observe yourself for a day attributing praise and blame here and there. Think about whether your natural, indispensible and practically unavoidable judgments really have propositions about the ultimate ground of causation packed into them. I think you'll find that they don't. You'll find that they have a great deal to do with thoughts about certain kinds of local personal control. You'll find that you'll consider coercion or bio-chemical incapitation to mitigate responsibility. You'll find yourself thinking that so and so isn't to blame because she didn't know something or other. Or even that so and so is just extremely absent minded (or becoming senile) and sometimes can't help it when he forgets an important appointment. Or so and so really deserves that award because she works so hard, despite her difficult personal circumstances. That sort of thing. Unless you've been infected by bad philosophy or theology, you won't have had any thoughts about determinism or indetermism.

Every argument you offer me

Every argument you offer me implies that I'm free to accept or reject your argument. Denial of that premise reduces your argument to incoherence.

"Now, we still might have

"Now, we still might have good consequentialist reasons for punishing amoral actors."

Lacking choice, what would be the utility of reasons?

Kennedy, I'm not trying to

Kennedy,

I'm not trying to convince anyone of determinism. And when I offer you an argument, if determinism is true, nothing about free will follows. I was determined to offer it and you were either determined to accept or reject it, whatever you ultimately do.

Micha, have you read

Micha, have you read Dennett's _Freedom Evolves_? He gives a nice, very detailed argument for compatibilism.

It's on my nightstand,

It's on my nightstand, waiting to be read.

"And when I offer you an

"And when I offer you an argument, if determinism is true, ...

...then no argument was offered.

The premise that one is free to choose is indispensible to any argument.

True, but what's your point?

True, but what's your point? That tells us nothing about whether determinism is true or coherent.

"True, but what’s your

"True, but what’s your point?"

That you cannot argue for determinism without contradicting yourself.

In the passage I quoted you didn't make it through a dozen words without contradicting yourself.

It's not a contradiction;

It's not a contradiction; it's just not an argument as you defined the term "argument". If a computer spits out:

1. If P, then Q

2. P

3. Therefore, Q

is this a contradiction? Of course not. It just isn't an argument in the sense that the computer didn't freely choose to make it with the intent of convincing someone. But the truth or falsity of whether Q follows from the first two premises does not depend upon whether the computer has free will. So too, the truth or falsity of determinism does not depend on whether we have the ability to choose to argue for determinism, or whether we are determined to argue for determinism.

This really isn't that difficult, John. Yet you keep making the same mistaken assumptions again and again. Why? Do you honestly not understand why this is a bad argument against determinism? Or are you just being difficult for some other reason?

Are you offering this to

Are you offering this to persuade or are you just spitting things out?

"Yet you keep making the same mistaken assumptions again and again. Why? Do you honestly not understand why this is a bad argument against determinism? Or are you just being difficult for some other reason?"

Why do you address me as if I have a choice?

I've argued that you cannot coherently proceed from the assumption you are determined and you've done nothing but confirm that.

MG: I don't exist.

JK: That's incoherent.

MG: Do you honestly not understand why this is a bad argument against my non-existence?

Again, Kennedy, I am not

Again, Kennedy, I am not trying to convince you that you do not exist or that you have no free will or that your acts are fully determined by forces beyond your control. Rather, I am trying to convince you (or, rather, Will is trying to convince Objectivists in general) that your's is not a valid argument against determinism. Determinism may still be the case, regardless of whether we have the capacity to choose to formulate and accept rational arguments.

Of course I can't coherently proceed from the assumption of determinism when I am trying to convince you to understand or learn something. This is why people don't live their lives under the assumption of determinism. But that does nothing to disprove the possible truth of determinism.

Again, just because something may be required for debate does not make it true.

So you agree that no

So you agree that no coherent argument can be offered for determinism?

If the purpose of an

If the purpose of an argument is a freely chosen group of premises intended to invoke a change of opinion freely chosen by the listener, no. I don't think purely logical arguments--divorced from empirical observation--can prove much of anything about the world, other than tautologies. I do think that evidence could be presented in support of determinism, and that determinism is possible.

"I do think that evidence

"I do think that evidence could be presented in support of determinism,...

What evidence could possibly persuade you that you are determined?

A better scientific

A better scientific understanding of how the mind works.