Gpuccio and free will part 2

Now for a more complete response (see preceding post)


First, I want to correct you on the history of compatabilism.  It is a long and respectable history. It has been argued that some the Greek Stoics were compatibilists, certainly Thomas Hobbes and David Hume were, possibly Kant was, although he is always hard to interpret.

My main concern was to respond to the argument that what compatibilism does is “define away” the problem.  Another way round this is to avoid defining free will at all.  If you will accept that if there is true free will then it is manifest in the act of choosing, then we can talk about choosing instead. You and I both choose all the time – so I think we can agree we are talking about the same thing. The issue becomes – is choosing compatible with determinism?  There seems to be no reason to reject this out of hand.

I think the key phrase in your comment is “intuition of agency”. Early in our dialogue I said:


But how does this introspection inform you that when you exercise your free will it is not determined? I guess it is doesn’t come with a label saying “not determined”.


You seem to be saying that actually when you choose you have an intuition that choosing is not determined or not fully determined (or maybe you are saying that you have an intuition of “agency” and this is something different – but in that case how do you know that agency is not determined?)

My argument is all about how do we know that when we choose that choice is not determined?  There are some ways we might know:

  • We might discover it empirically – but haven’t as yet.  What would it be like to discover that choice is not determined?  I can imagine discovering a causal chain and therefore that it was determined but not the other way round.  All we would see is the absence of a causal chain.
  • We might discover it by introspection or intuition (are these different?).  I can only say I that I have not introspected or intuited this.  But the fact that it is logically possible that might one day find a causal chain means these intuitions might be wrong – so on what basis do you trust them?
  • We might find some kind of logical necessity for choice not to be determined.  This is presumably what you are getting at when you write:

for the concept of moral responsibility, and so on. It would be difficult even to start to describe human civilization without the concept of free will

I find I have no problem describing human civilisation along with the concept of determined decisions.  Remember all compatibilism means is that people’s decisions are caused by a combination of their inner state and outer environment – they respond to their desires and beliefs – with maybe the odd random quirk thrown in.  This seems to account for human behaviour quite adequately.

Moral responsibility takes a bit longer and this where the excellent Green’s points come in.  The key problem is that we feel we usually accept people are not morally responsible if “they could not have done otherwise”. But this a modal statement.  It is saying it is not possible that they could have done otherwise.  Like all modal statements it there is an implicit or explicit condition.  If I injure someone because I have a heart attack while driving then I could not have done otherwise through any conscious action.  If I injure someone because I attack them then I could have taken a different conscious action if I had a different personality which might in turn be a function of my upbringing.  There is always an “if”.  There is no PAP to use Green’s phrase.  But some “if”s are not adequate to clear us of moral responsibility.  It may be inevitable that someone turns into a serial killer given their circumstances.  They are still morally responsible for their deeds.


2 Responses to “Gpuccio and free will part 2”

  1. 1 gpuccio August 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm


    In this second part, you just express the reasons why you believe in compatibilism. That’s fine for me, although I don’t agree with them. I would like to remark that my whole post which you have commented was not about demonstrating that compatibilim is not true, or is not a point of view with its specific arguments: I was only trying to demonstrate that it is a point of view different form the view of libertarian free will, that libertarian free will is the usual way of indending free will, both in philosophy and in common language, and that from the point of view of libertarians, or at least from my point of view, it is substantially not different from other forms of determinism (or better, it is different, bit not for the conclusions which are important for me).

    Obviously, in the course of the discussion I have probably included some remark about why I think that compatibilism is simply wrong, and not even smart. So, I can sum up here a few points about that:

    1) What I call the intuition of agency does have in itself the sense of free choice. That is dioscovered mainly by observing it in ourselves with an open and calm mind. But that judgement is personal, so if you don’t see that in yourself, I have nothing to argue about that. By the way, I believe that was also Russel’s argument about free will. So you are in good company (I am not joking, I respect Russel).

    2) I agree that the existence of that intuition does not gurantee that it is cognitively true, IOW that it corresponds to a true free process of agency. It could certainly be a delusion. Again, that is Russel’s argument against free will (and, I believe, against mysticism too).

    3) In that sense, I make a difference between two fundamental and universal intuitions we have:

    a) the intuition of our consiousness is in itself proof of the existence of our consciousness, because our consiousness needs not be proven in relation to the outer world (possibly, it is the other way round).

    b) the intuition of our free will, instead, could be delusional, because it regards the nature of our acts towards the outer world.

    IOW, if we perceive that we are conscious we are certainly conscious, but if we perceive that we are free we could be wrong.

    All that I had already stated in my many posts.

    4) The you can ask: why do you believe in free will? (I mean, my conception of free will). I would say, without fear of being a bit self-referential, that it is a choice. Indeed, I don’t believe that at present there are empirical evidences of free will (at least, not strong enough). Personally, I am not completely sure that it could be proven empirically. More or less the same I believe for determinism. That’s why I say that free will differently from design, is not, at least for now, a scientific issue.

    But it is certainly a philosophical one. And it is certainly a personal choice which, more or less, all of us have to do, directly or indirectly.

    Now, I don’t really believe that the argument about morality and the resy “proves” free will. But I do believe tfhat free will is the only view consistent with a satisfying conception of morality, of human destiny, and of human values. In this, I completely disagree with you, who, I understand, believ the opposite.

    That’s why, if I really did not believe in free will, my life would change dramatically. And I would be rather desperate.

  2. 2 marktfrank August 24, 2010 at 7:04 pm


    I think moving the debate away from free will to choosing was a good move and avoided some discussion of semantics. I will shift my position to say that compatabilism is the idea that making choosing is compatible with determinism (not forgetting the optional random element).

    I am surprised that you are so scathing about compatabilism, calling it “not even smart”. You admit that you have no evidence for your view of choosing and that is a decision not a conclusion. And yet you are scathing about someone who makes a different decision!

    I think the essence of it lies in the story of the injured girl. You wrote:

    “Things, very simply, could not have happened differently. ”

    “Could” is a modal word. It carries an implicit set of conditions. If determinism is true than at one level nothing could have happened differently. But at a lower level all sorts of hypotheticals are possible. You could say playing chess I could move my bishop diagonally but not orthogonally. But of course I can easily move it anywhere I like if ignore the rules. Any statement of possibility has this implication. Something which could have happened if I had decided differently just carries a different type of condition from something which I could not. We even say “I could do X if I wanted to”. But given that I don’t want to then it won’t happen.

    When we use “he couldn’t help it” as an excuse for immoral behaviour then some types of conditions are acceptable, otehrs are not. If I couldn’t help it because I was forced at gun point, or had a heart attack then that is acceptable. If I couldn’t help because I am a bad person, or weak-willed or brought up in a broken home then that that does not clear me of my sins.

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