More on Free Will and Criminal Responsibility


My colleague Brian Doherty's insightful article, "You Can't See Why on an fMRI," was published today online. The article deals with what, if anything, neuroscience has told us about moral responsibility, especially in the context of criminal responsibility. The vexed question at the heart of his article is, how can we hold people responsible for their behavior when we know that their actions are caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences? If a person cannot choose to do otherwise than he did, why is he responsible for his actions? Doherty observes:
Even if we had certain answers to these big, complicated questions of free will vs. determinism, or understood the precise neurological cause of mental problems, that wouldn't necessarily dictate how the legal system should deal with those diagnosed as mentally ill. Some physical determinists have concluded that neuroscience cannot tell us whether we should hold people legally responsible for their actions…
Juries and judges need to know what happened and why. As the Yates and Clark cases illustrate, psychiatry and neuroscience are not much help in answering those questions, despite the constant promise that a deeper and more expansive understanding of the relationship between brain and mind is just around the corner.
Katrina Sifferd, a scholar affiliated with the conservative Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future, argues that metaphysical questions about free will versus determinism are not really relevant to determining criminality liability. To wit:
Criminal responsibility does not require purely "uncaused" action but, instead, requires that action be immediately caused in a certain way. If a harmful act is connected to the actor's desires or goals, and if the actor held certain beliefs about the harm that could result from the act, then he or she is criminally responsible. Thus, to be guilty of murder under the U.S. Model Penal Code, for example, one must have a mens rea (or a mental state) that includes: (1) the desire to perform an act that results in the death of another; and (2) performance of the act with the desire to kill, knowledge one will kill, or with reckless indifference to the chance that one may kill. It is possible—even likely—that future science may provide a complete physical causal description of the mental states required for criminal responsibility—the desire to kill and the understanding that the act will result in a death. But this need not affect the categories of culpability (such as murder, rape, and theft) themselves. The breadth of category is a policy decision determined by legislatures and judges. New scientific knowledge should only act to help us, as a society, better categorize defendants as "guilty" or "not guilty" based upon the existing categories of culpability and defense.

Generally, we regard people as acting freely when they act on their own intentions and for their own reasons without coercion. What matters are intentions, not how those intentions arose. As Doherty explains, some intentions indicate that you are insane ("Beelzebub made me do it") and therefore–if a jury believes that you are not lying–you are not culpable. On the other hand, if you rob someone at gunpoint because you intend to spend their money on an iPhone, you're culpable.
As Doherty and Sifferd explain, neuroscience may shed light on what causes people to act in blameworthy and praiseworthy ways, but new neuroscientific knowledge will not abolish criminal culpability.
For additional reading, consider my column, "Prozac Justice," where I talk about some of the downsides of replacing retribution with a therapeutic state.

NEXT: The Rise and Fall of the Swedish Welfare State: The Metal Years

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  1. Oh boy, more of the same conundrum.

  2. So, if I rob people at gunpoint for an iPhone so I can keep in touch with Beelzebub, what then?

  3. Do the crime, do the time.

  4. DAR: Do you happen to have Beelzebub’s number handy? 🙂

  5. Ron, It starts with a 6.

  6. I just don’t understand how someone’s mental state ever came to be relevant to questions of guilt and innocence. There’s guilty and there’s didn’t do it. Culpability is for sentencing.

  7. Warren – isn’t ot like murder vs. manslaughter, concerning intent?

  8. Well, if genes and environmental factors caused someone to commit a crime, maybe the very same could be said to cause the rest of us to punish him.

  9. Does this mean that a massive Iron Maiden fan can kill with impunity?

    Incidentally, rather than choosing between the false dichotomy of punishing people and absolving them of any responsibility for their crimes, perhaps we should take up the standard of restitutive justice.

    In other words whenever possible rather than punishing people we compel them to make their victims whole again.

    Then mens rea becomes much less of an issue. The why of the crime becomes secondary to healing the hurt.

  10. That is, if you shot me believing I’m not a human being, you didn’t murder me, irrespective of whether your erred from poor vision or poor ideation.

  11. Good pernt, tarran.

  12. Mr. Bailey, you’re #26 on my speed-dial. Does that help?

    But seriously folks, if you’re a neurological (or any variety of) determinist, who cares what your intentions are? If you could not have acted other than you did, then holding you ‘responsible’ and ‘punishing’ you for whatever it is you did do is intuitively immoral. Okay, so the counter argument here is that society is just as determined to act that way and, lucky for us, such action discourages similar behavior; but why is wanting an iPhone insufficient while being ‘forced’ by Beelzebub is sufficient grounds to beat the rap if neither act or decision was freely made?

  13. The essence of this issue is the error of trying to make a distinction between you and your intentions.

    A good recent book on the topic

  14. Just curious, what constitutes a “freely made” decision for you? As I noted in my Prozac Justice column:

    …Many people naively believe that free will, and thus personal responsibility and moral culpability, depends on the notion that people are somehow uncaused causers. But can someone really be held responsible in such a contra-causal world? Not really. As psychologist and philosopher William James put it: “If a ‘free’ act be a sheer novelty that comes not from me, the previous me, but ex nihilo, and simply tacks itself on to me, how can I, the previous I, be responsible?”

  15. A gazillion threads about brain disease? Is this national insanity day or what?

  16. Um, well, do you want to have the discussion about James on personal identity over time or the discussion about the difference between (a)denying extrinsic influences affecting decisions or acts and (b) denying that after all such extrinsic influences are accounted for there is anything left over?

    Let’s assume you hold views on either or both of these questions and are considering whether to reply to this or not. Should I deem either (1) those views or (2) the presence or absence of your posted reply as evidence, on your view, of anything about which you were genuinely in control over and thus could have believed or acted differently or does your view of science lead you to believe that we are no different, except in the complexity of our behavior, than the stone tossed into the air which, at its zenith, decides to begin its descent?

  17. Why do so many people assume that if we don’t have total free will (whatever that means), we can’t be justly held responsible — i.e. praised or blamed — for our actions? I mean, doesn’t the practice of assigning praise and blame actually reveal some kind of deterministic assumptions?

    That is, I think most of us believe that by blaming or punishing someone for a criminal act, we help determine their future behavior. Incentive systems all rest on the premise that human behavior can be determined by environmental factors (at least).

  18. RC, I don’t know anyone who believes in “total free will (whatever that means).” The issue is whether there is any free will.

  19. DAR: Our complexity does make us different. We don’t haul stones that fall from a mountainside onto a house into court, but we do haul people who cause stones to fall onto a house by blowing up a mountain into court. Whether they are punished civilly or criminally depends on our evaluation of their intentions.

    In any case, if you think that we are different from stones falling from their zenith, what does that difference consist of? What is contra-causal free will? And why do we need it?

  20. What does this matter? We have a business, er, I mean criminal justice system to run.

    If you have free will, we can punish you because of culpability. If you have no free will, we can fuck with you as a sacrifice to the gods. Either way, the priests, er, lawyers get paid and the mob gets their blood like they’ve wanted ever since man existed.

    It’s a supply and demand issue like everything else. The public has a certain demand for blood ‘n’ guts ‘n’ revenge and someone must supply the sacrificial lambs. We had WWII, took a breather, then destroyed a lot of Southeast Asians, then took a breather and had the hayday of violent TV cop shows. Took a breather from that and started up our “peacekeeping” and other MENA excursions. Same goes for every society – if the Arabs had more blood ‘n’ guts’ TV on they’d be less inclined for real-life violence.

  21. Applied Ethics and Free Will:
    Some Untoward Results of Independence
    Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 10 (1993), pp. 59-72.
    Tibor R. Machan

    Inconsistencies in Applied Ethics?
    Is a theory of free will a luxury or a necessity for applied ethics? I will argue that it is a necessity. Moreover, in the context of widespread social scientism, silence on the issue amounts to acquiescence or at least tolerance of the deterministic view of human behavior, one in terms of which individual moral responsibility, thus applied ethics, is precluded from human affairs, private or public.
    On the one hand, there is no end of blaming and praising going on in both the academic and the non-academic world in our time. In applied ethics, in particular, persons in the professions of medi?cine, law, business, science and education are said to have certain responsibilities to conduct themselves in various ways as well as to abstain from various kinds of conduct. These claims are made in textbooks, treatises, and academic journals. Furthermore, during well publicized Congressional hearings there is no end of blaming and praising, at first by the politicians associated with the var?ious sides, but later by commentators and policy analysts. In the case of such issues as AIDS research, gun control, civil rights bills, entitlement programs, and so forth, we find that numerous academicians enter the fray, by means of radio and television ap?pearances and newspaper columns, as well as articles in prestigious magazines. This is especially so during political elections.
    Among both groups we often find philosophers writing for popular as well as scholarly publications. This is especially so when cases involving what are called ethical dilemmas make front page news – e.g., assisted suicides, surrogate mothering, euthanasia, testing for the AIDS virus, accidents attributed to drug abuse, racially motivated violence, etc. Some other such cases in our time that draw evaluative comments include the Keating Five affair, the Sav?ings and Loan fiasco, U.S. government dealings with the likes of Manuel Noriega or Sadam Hussein, the devastating factory fire in North Carolina, air and other types of pollution associated with the operation of businesses, recycling of renewable resources, alcohol consumption prior to using their vehicles, safe sex campaigns, elections campaigns by former KKK members, and so on.
    On the other hand, we also find that many in our culture identify their own misbehavior in terms that do not fit the idea of moral responsibility, in other words, blaming and praising. I already noted that in academic social science human behavior is treated primarily as if it were caused by factors over which individuals have no control – their upbringing, genetic make-up, their economic class membership, cultural background, etc. In the fields of psy?chology, economics, sociology, anthropology, and political science many of the prominent modes of analysis and explanation subscribe to some version of the nature/nurture deterministic framework, with no theoretical room left for individual self-determination that is not reducible to some outside or built in forces. Furthermore, talk shows abound with different types of addicts, so that some of the most lamentable conduct by people is deemed to be a result of an affliction or a disease. There are no drunks but merely victims of alcoholism; there are no philanderers or adulterers, only the sexual addicted; drug abusers are classified as suffering from addiction; those overweight or undernourished or abusive toward their children or their spouses, and many others, are identified as suffering from some condition that is supposed to explain this behavior in full.

    Confusion and Injustice Based on Inconsistency
    The practical consequences of such a divided outlook, whereby much of the discussion in the culture both condemns and exonerates individuals when it comes to their lamentable conduct, may well be confusion as well as injustice. If in order to act effectively – including establishing institutions guiding long range behavior and policies – people must have ideas by which to be guided, and if these ideas imply conflicting, even contradictory, courses of ac?tion, it seems reasonable to expect much confusion and even injus?tice to arise. We come to understand ourselves as (a) capable of being and often in fact individually responsible for many problems in our lives and as (b) unable to act by our own judgment, formulate plans of action that counter influences upon us from the environment, our past, genes, or whatnot. We cannot but see ourselves as divided in a rather fundamental way. There is also the serious vulnerability this engenders in many in our culture to opportunistic moralistic attacks which are themselves excused by appealing to environmental or related forms of determinism. Outbursts, denunciations, etc., are often discussed in this fashion, for example, on talk shows as well as in more serious social commentaries. And it seems that philosophers contribute amply to this problematic situation. Are they responsible? Should they – can they – alter their ways? But those questions are just the sort in need of greater attention.
    All this has, of course, been dismissed along lines heard from the late psychologist B. F. Skinner, namely, as so much “pre scientific” talk based on folk psychology or little more than myth and by now eclipsed by he findings of modern science. Nevertheless, we can easily move away from cases involving the remarks and conduct of lay people and draw our material from the forums where professional philosophers sound off and where we find that praising and blaming (and its cognates ) are as frequent therein as anywhere else. In our time applied ethics is a flourishing field, so that philosophers make claims about how doctors, lawyers, politicians, soldiers, business manag?ers, personnel directors, teachers, parents, and men and women fulfilling innumerable other roles in life ought to or ought not to act. Journals abound in business, medical, environmental, legal and other varieties of applied ethics – as well as the broader fields of social and political philosophy and of public policy – and many of the papers featured pertain to what people in these fields ought or ought not do, or, alternatively, what laws or rules legislators or regulators ought to enact so as to force those in these fields to behave properly.

    The Philosophers’ Role
    In the face of all such moralizing from professional philosophers , it is curious if not outright scandalous that so little attention is paid, by those doing work in applied ethics, to whether human beings are equipped to direct or guide themselves so that they can be held responsible for how they act, whether they do what is right or what is wrong in their various roles being so valiantly scrutinized. In other words, given the widely admitted philosophical idea that “ought implies can,” especially in circum?stances not fraught with paradox , it seems odd that philosophers are not eager to reconcile all their moralizing with their view of human nature and motivation. Let us explore here why it may be that no great effort is being made to draw together the normative and ontological aspects of substantive moral or ethical theorizing in our time.
    I should note that there isn’t total silence on the relationship between ethics and human nature, specifically whether human individ?uals can be original causes or initiators of their actions. But these discussions are not conducted in those forums where most of the substantive applied ethical analysis is carried out, nor by those who focus most intensely on substantive ethics. Indeed, it is these same applied ethicists who seem not to touch on the issue of individual responsibility so that we may assess how they square their moral exhortations with some compatible view of human nature.

    The Genesis of Disjointedness
    To begin with, let us make note of the fact that much of the energy and activity in moral philosophy in public policy was started with the work of John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice cer?tainly launched renewal of political philosophy as well as a good deal of moral philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition. (Robert Nozick’s work didn’t seriously challenge this approach, nor did earlier works in this gerne ).
    Yet, this resurrection came with an expensive proviso attached. This proviso was put explicitly by John Rawls in his presidential address of 1974 to the American Philosophical Association called “The Independ?ence of Moral Theory.” Rawls’s thesis was that we need to forget about the grand, systematic philosophical projects and attend only to questions of morality. As Rawls put it, a “relation of methodological priority does not hold, I believe, between the theory of meaning, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind on the one hand and moral philosophy on the other. To the contrary: a central part of moral philosophy is what I have called moral theory; it consists in the comparative study of moral conceptions, which is, in large part, independent.” Ethics, morality, public policy were to be approached without what used to be called any “philosophical foundations”.
    In a way, Rawls’s thesis echoed several decades of ordinary language and analytic philosophy which had been antagonistic toward system-building. It was, furthermore, just another turn away from the kind of moral theorizing that had been attacked by David Hume, in his A Treatise of Human Nature, several centuries ago. System- building was once more declared to be useless and philosophically unjustified. Philosophy was supposed to scale down its scope and become more piece meal. We were to look at various issues that had been the province of philosophy in isolation from philosophical thinking. Exactly how the recategorization of such traditional philosophical issues was to happen was a matter of the different methodologies and theories of the various competing schools, but these competing schools had tended to agree on one fundamental principle and that is that philosophy was pretty much impotent when it came to such questions as “What is the nature of knowledge and moral knowledge?”, “What’s the nature of the good and the moral good?” Even such questions as “Do human being possess freedom of will?”, “Is there a God?”, etc., were deemed by many to be out of bounds for philosophical investigations.
    We may fairly associate these attitudes with subschools of empir?icism, logical positivism, linguistic analysis, ordinary language philosophy, pragmatism, existentialism, etc. Rawls’s independence of moral theory thesis was another way of putting essentially the same point: Ethics, philosophy of law, political philosophy, public policy issues and the like were all to be handled on the basis of impressions, intuitions, what seems to make the best sense under ordinary circumstances and in ordinary terms, etc., placed, of course, in a “reflective equilibrium.” Following Rawls’s own work, as well as Nozick’s partial endorsement of its methodology – since Nozick, too, used ordinary intuitions to test the feasibility of his assumed natural rights – a great number of articles began to appear in journals such as Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs and Social Theory and Practice, in which this independence of moral theory thesis was assumed to be correct and moral discussions were conducted accordingly.

    Starting with Intuitions
    Evidence for this point may be gleaned from the fact that these articles usually began with an assertion concerning “our considered moral judgments” or “moral intuitions” and then proceeded to sketch out some kind of a derivation as it applies to some area of public policy, morality, law, and politics. It is arguable, however, that this tact is misguided. One consideration that had to be neglect?ed, in consequence of such “independence,” is whether any of this moral and political exhortation had a realistic base in human na?ture, in the nature of the being that is the intended audience of such discussions – especially when it comes to readers of textbooks and collections of case analyses. How might it be possible that we ought to engage in redistribution of wealth, why ought we to engage in the equal treatment of everyone in a society, why should we abstain from sexual discrimination and harassment, insider trading, tax evasion, exploitative or imperialistic foreign trade or poli?cies, greedy financial scheming if, in fact, we can’t help what we do, if we are moved by forces over which we have no control?
    Philosophers may not have outright endorsed the view B. F. Skin?ner placed on record – although John Rawls himself came extremely close to doing just that when he wrote that a person’s “character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit”. However, their colleagues within academe in the social sciences, including economists, sociol?ogists, psychologists, anthropologists and the rest, have mostly formulated theories that discount free human agency as regards our conduct, institutions and laws.
    Assume it turns out that there is no way for us to do anything but what we must do, as determined by the neural powers, the mechan?ics of our brain, the socio-economic conditions that have surrounded us during our “formative” years or some similar candidate. Assume, in other words, that the deterministic conception of human nature is correct. Assume, furthermore, that no fundamental challenge to this essentially mechanistic model of the human mind and consciousness has been prominently advanced – and there certainly hasn’t been such a challenge in much of 19th and 20th century philosophy. If all this is accepted, especially by those engaged in the promulgation of moral and political ideals, one can certainly wonder how anyone is to make any sense of the claim that people ought to do, and abstain from doing, all the myriads of things that moral philosophers, public policy analysts and political philosophers maintain?

    The Importance of having Free Will
    Let me briefly argue that there is indeed free will. There is nothing odd about the supposition that we have it. I’m going to defend the position that free will means that human beings can cause some of what they do, on their own; in other words, what they do is not explainable solely by references to factors that have influenced them, though, of course, their range of options is clearly circumscribed by the world in which they live, by their particular circumstances, capacities, options, talents, etc. My thesis, in other words, is that human beings are able to cause their actions and they are therefore responsible for some of them. In a basic sense we are all are original actors capable of making novel moves in the world. We are, in other words, initiators of some of our behavior. I will later indicate why this makes a dif?ference in applied ethics and public affairs discussion, contrary to the impression left by the numerous discussions in these fields that do not touch on the topic.
    The first matter to be noted is that the suggestion that free will exists in no way contradicts science. Free will could well be a natural phenomenon, something that emerged in nature with the emergence of human beings, with their kind of minds, namely, minds that can think and be aware of their own thinking. In other words, that some animals might be facilitated to be original and creative, rather than largely reflexive, responsive or reactive, is not ipso facto a violation of the laws of nature.
    Nature is complicated and multifaceted. It includes many differ?ent sorts of things and one of these is human beings. Such beings may well exhibit one unique yet natural attribute that other beings apparently do not exhibit, namely, free will.
    I am going to offer eight reasons why a belief in free will makes very good sense. Four of these explain why there can be free will – i.e., why nature does not preclude it. But these do not yet demon?strate that free will exists. That will be the job of the other four reasons, which will establish that free will actually exists; it’s not just a possibility but an actuality.

    Nature’s Laws versus Free Will
    First, one of the major objections against free will is that nature is governed by a set of laws, mainly the laws of physics. Everything is controlled by these laws and we human beings are basically more complicated versions of material substances and that therefore whatever governs any other material substance in the universe must also govern human life. Basically, we are subject to the same kind of causation everything else is. Since nothing else exhib?its free will but conforms to causal laws, so must we be. Social science is merely looking into the particulars of those causes, but we all know that we are subject to them in any case. The only difference is that we are complicated things, not that we are not governed by the same principles or laws of nature.
    Now, in response I want to point out that nature exhibits innu?merable different domains, distinct not only in their complexity but also in the kinds of beings they include. So it is not possible to rule out ahead of time that there might be something in nature that exhibits agent causation. This is the phenomenon whereby a thing causes some of its own behavior. So there might be in nature a form of existence that exhibits free will. Whether there is or is not is something to be discovered, not ruled out by a narrow metaphysics that restricts everything to being just a variation on just one kind of thing. Thus, taking account of what nature is composed of does not at all rule out free will. Yet, simply because of the possibil?ity that there is free will, there may still not be. We shall consider that a bit later.

    Can we Know of Free Will?
    Another reason why some think that free will is not possible is that the dominant mode of studying, inspecting or examining nature is what we call “empiricism.” In other words, many believe that the only way we know about nature is we observe it with our various sensory organs. But since the sensory organs do not give us direct evidence of such a thing as free will, there really isn’t any such thing. Since no observable evidence for free will exists, therefore free will does not exist.
    But the doctrine that empiricism captures all forms of knowing is wrong. Many things that we know, we know not simply through observation but through a combination of observation, inferences, and theory con?struction. (Consider, even the purported knowledge that empiricism is our form of knowledge is not “known” empirically!)
    For one, many features of the universe, including criminal guilt, are detected without eyewitnesses but by way of theories which serve the purpose of best explaining what we do have before us to observe. This is true, also, even in the natural sciences. Many of the phenomena or facts in biology, astrophysics, subatomic physics, botany, chemistry – not to mention psychology – consist of not what we see or detect by observation but that is inferred by way of a theory. And the theory that explains things best – most completely and most consistently – is the best answer to the question as to what is going on.
    Free will may well turn out to be in this category. In other words, free will may not be something that we can see directly, but what best explains what we do see in human life. This may include, for example, the many mistakes that human beings make in contrast to the few mistakes that other animals make. We also notice that human beings do all kinds of odd things that cannot be accounted for in terms of mechanical causation, the type associated with physics. We can examine a person’s background and find that some people with bad childhoods turn out to be decent, while others turn out to be crooks. And free will comes as a very helpful explanation. For now all we need to consider is that this may well be so, and if empiricism does not allow for it, so much the worse for empiricism. One could know something because it explains something else better than any alternative. And that is not strict empirical knowledge.

    Is Free Will Weird?
    Another matter that very often counts against free will is that the rest beings in nature do not exhibit it. Dogs, cats, lizards, fish, frogs, etc., have no free will and therefore it appears arbi?trary to impute it to human beings. Why should we be free to do things when in the rest of nature lacks any such capacity? It would be an impossible aberration.
    The answer here is similar to what I gave earlier. To wit, there is enough variety in nature – some things swim, some fly, some just lie there, some breathe, some grow, while others do not; so there is plenty of evidence of plurality of types and kinds of things in nature. Discovering that something has free will could be yet another addition to all the varieties of nature.
    Let us now consider whether free will actually does exist. I’m going to offer four arguments in support of an affirmative answer.
    Are We Determined to be Determinists – or not?
    There is an argument against determinism to the effect that, if we are fully determined in what we think, believe, and do, then of course the belief that determinism is true is also a result of this determinism. But the same holds for the belief that there deter?minism is false. There is nothing you can do about whatever you believe – you had to believe it. There is no way to take an inde?pendent stance and consider the arguments unprejudiced because all various forces making us assimilate the evidence in the world just the way we do. One either turns out to be a determinist or not and in neither case can we appraise the issue objectively because we are predetermined to have a view on the matter one way or the other.
    But then, paradoxically, we’ll never be able to resolve this debate, since there is no way of obtaining an objective assessment. Indeed, the very idea of scientific or judicial objectivity, as well as of ever reaching philosophical truth, has to do with being free. Thus, if we’re engaged in this enterprise of learning about truth and distinguishing it from falsehood, we are committed to the idea that human beings have some measure of mental freedom.

    Should We Become Determinists?
    There’s another dilemma of determinism. The determinist wants us to believe in determinism. In fact, he believes we ought to be determinists rather than believe in this myth called “free will”. But, as the saying goes in philosophy, “ought” implies “can”. That is, if one ought to believe in or do something, this implies that one has a choice in the matter; it implies that we can make a choice as to whether determinism or the free will is a better doctrine. That, then, presupposes that we are free. In other words, even arguing for determinism assumes that we are not determined to be?lieve in free will, but that it is a matter of our making certain choices about arguments, evidence, and thinking itself.

    We Often Know We Are Free
    In many contexts of our lives introspective knowledge is taken very seriously. When you go to a doctor and he asks you, “Are you in pain?” and you say, “Yes,” and he says “Where is the pain?” and you say, “It’s in my knee,” the doctor doesn’t say, “Why, you can’t know; this is not public evidence; I will now get verifiable, direct evidence whether and where you hurt.” In fact your evidence is very good evi?dence. Witnesses at trials give evidence as they report about what they have seen, which is introspective evidence: “This indeed is what I have seen or heard.” Even in the various sciences people report on what they’ve read on surveys or seen on gauges or instru?ments. Thus they are giving us introspective evidence.
    Introspection is one source of evidence that we take as reasona?bly reliable. So what should we make of the fact that a lot of people do say things like, “Damn it, I didn’t make the right choice,” or “I neglected to do something.” They report to us that they have made various choices, decisions, etc., that they intended this or that but not another thing. And they often blame themselves for not having done something, thus they report that they are taking responsibility for what they have or haven’t done.
    In short, there is a lot of evidence from people all around us of the existence of free choice.

    Modern Science Discovers Free Will
    Finally, there is also the evidence of the fact that we do seem to have the capacity for self-monitoring. The human brain has a kind of structure that allows us to, so to speak, govern our?selves. We can inspect our lives, we can detect where we’re going, and we can, therefore, change course. And the human brain itself makes it possible. The brain, because of its structure, can monitor itself and as a result we can decide whether to continue in a cer?tain pattern or to change that pattern and go in a different direc?tion. That is the sort of free will that is demonstrable. At least some scientists, for example Roger W. Sperry, maintain that there’s evidence for free will in this sense. This view depends on a number of points I have already mentioned. It assumes that there can be different kind of causes in nature, so that the functioning of the brain would be a kind of self-causation, or, rather, initiation. The brain as a system would have to be able to cause some things about the organism’s behavior and that depends, of course, on the possibility of there being various kinds of causes.
    Precisely the sort of thing Sperry thinks possible is evident in our lives. We make plans and revise them. We explore alternatives and decide to follow one of these. We change a course of conduct we have embarked upon, or continue with it. In other words, there is a locus of individual self responsibility that is evident in the way in which we look upon ourselves, and the way in which we in fact behave.

    The Best Theory is True.
    Finally, there what I have alluded to earlier, namely, that when we put all of this together we get a more sensible understanding of the complexities of human life than otherwise – we get a better understanding, for example, of why social engineering and government regulation and regimentation do not work, why there are so many individual and cultural differences, why people can be wrong, why they can disagree with each other, etc. It is because they are free to do so, because they are not set in some pattern the way cats and dogs and orangutans and birds tend to be.
    Most of the behavior of these creatures around us can be predict?ed. With human beings we can make some predictions because we often have our minds made up and from that we can estimate what we are going to do. But even then we do not get a certain prediction. Very often people change their minds and surprise or annoy us. And, if we go to different cultures, they’ll surprise us even more. This complexity, diversity, and individuation about human beings is best explained if human beings are free than if they are determined.

    We have Good Reason to Trust Free Will.
    So these several reasons provide a kind of argumentative collage in support of the free will position. Can anyone do better with this issue? I don’t know. I think it’s best to ask only for what is the best of the various competing theories. Are human beings behaving solely in response to forces impinging on them? Or do they have the capacity to take charge of their lives, often neglect to do so properly or effectively, make stupid choices, etc.? Which suppo?sition explains the human world and its complexities around us?
    I think the latter makes much better sense. It explains, much better than do deterministic theories, how it is possible that human life involves such wide range of possibilities, accomplishments as well as defeats, joys as well as sorrows, creation as well as de?struction. It explains, also, why in human life there is so much change – in language, custom, style, art, and science. Unlike other living beings, for which what is possible is pretty much fixed by instincts and reflexes – even if some extraordinary behavior may be elicited, by way of experiments in laboratories or, at times, in the face of unusual natural developments – people initiate much of what they do, for better and for worse. From their most distinctive capacity of forming ideas and theories, to those of artistic and athletic inventiveness, human beings remake the world without having to do so! And this can make good sense if we under?stand them to have the distinctive capacity for initiating their own conduct rather than relying on mere stimulation and reaction. It also poses for them certain very difficult tasks, not the least of them is that they cannot expect that any kind of formula or system is going to predictably manage the future of human affairs, such as some of social science seems to hope it will. Social engineering is, thus, not a genuine prospect for solving human problems – only education and individual initiative can do that.

    Problems with the “As If” Thesis
    There are those, of course, who hold that there is room both for causal determinism and for praise/blame because, even if there were no free will, still treating people as if they were free agents conducive to positive results (i.e., results we ourselves – all or most of us – [are causally destined to] deem as positive). Yet this tack capitalizes on a conceptual differences between being convinced about something and being fooled into believing it, a distinction that itself assumes free will. Those who are fooled are deemed, generally, to have the capacity to watch out against that eventuali?ty – unless, of course, they were made to be fooled. Furthermore, underlying this thesis we still find several questions that raise the issue of genuine free will.
    For example, should those who are on to the illusion keep people in the dark about their belief in free will? Are we free or deter?mined to make that decision? Is it right to fool people about such matters? If not, is it up to us to desist?
    Also, if the free will matter is a case of as if, what if most people discover it? Surely, if philosophers and psychologists can learn that it is mere a matter of treating us as if we had free will, so can others. In which case there is no point in continuing the subterfuge.
    Finally, in fact praise/blame do not make sense if there is no factual base for them. When we praise or blame dogs or horses, it may be praise or blame to us, but for them it is nothing of the sort – at most it is a kind of reinforcement or encouragement, something that makes them feel good and induces repetition. To repeat, in order to play the as if game, there must be some possibility of genuine praise/blame. Barring that, it cannot do its job, namely, of inducing bona fide pride or guilt. The language of ethics would be discovered to be no different from that of demonology or witch?craft, resting on nothing but error or myth.

    Public Policy and Free Will
    We can now return to the initial topic of this paper. Why is the free will subject matter a proper one to raise in connection with our understanding of applied ethics and public policies?
    To start with, one might do well to remember Kant’s contribution to this issue with his now famous philosophical motto, “ought im?plies can”- i.e., if we ought or ought not to act various ways, it must be possible for us to choose such acts and their alternatives. In other words, one cannot be said to have the responsibility to do or abstain from doing an action if the action is not something one can initiate. This initiation may be very well hidden when the action actually occurs, so that one may simply attribute its origin to character. But in the case one would have to be able to make sense of the idea that the character traits that prompted the action were somehow cultivated by the individual who has them.
    Based on the insight expressed in Kant’s motto – one evidenced, also, in Aristotle’s observation that “the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice” and “it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious” – we can see that any effort to credit or discredit persons for good or bad behavior, including the support of good or bad public policies, institutions, etc., would amount to a meaning?less gesture without free will. Indeed, in an intellectual climate in which free will is denied (as, for example, it seems clearly to be when most misconduct is attributed to addiction or other afflic?tions), the idea that someone has the power to initiate a change in his conduct – if only in whether and how he or she thinks about the issues involved – would make no sense. This is just what we witness when someone is being urged to stop smoking and answers, “Well, I just can’t stop.” If all evaluations of human behavior could be met with, “Well, I just cannot do otherwise,” this surely would have something of an impact on how we view ourselves and whether there is a chance to make improvements in our lives and societies. Moral advice, exhortation, criticism, praise, reward, and the like would be robbed of their meaning, just as the idea that someone is a witch or inhabited by demons is largely looked upon as meaningless these days.
    Accordingly, there seems to be a drastic gap between the idea of human nature that is circulating and is tacitly pretty much accepted by most philosophers and the persistent moralizing that goes on in philosophy journals. Perhaps this is of no concern to some people, but there is at least one moral reason – one might even construe it as belonging in the framework of applied ethics, namely, the ethics of philosophical scholarship – to think of it as a serious issue. That has to do with integrity. Presumably what integrity means is to have the various facets of one’s ideas, values and policies in life, including one’s professional pronouncements, placed in some sort of a consistent, coherent – integrated – framework. If, in fact, one can live with both a deterministic conception of human action and extensive moralizing, maybe integrity is not a necessary part of human life and certainly not of the life of a philosopher who dabbles in these issues. But then this could also have an impact on how we should view politicians and others whose lack of integrity is so often the topic of applied ethics discussions.
    If, however, we affirm the reality of free will – in some sensible form, never mind the details for now – we might also have to adjust some of our moral claims. In business ethics, for exam?ple, the doctrine of consumer sovereignty is commonly challenged on grounds advanced by John Kenneth Galbraith, namely, that consumers are easily manipulated by advertisements to purchase goods and services they do not actually need or want. If, however, some version of free will is construed as necessarily presupposed by business ethics as such, it may well require construing consumer sovereignty as something more reasonable than Galbraith claims. Other examples of issues that may be influenced by a thorough discussion of the free will issue involve such often dismissed notions as “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”) or “unconscionable con?tract,” and certain ways of understanding surrogate mothering or sexual exploitation or domination. In the area of sexual harass?ment, molestation, and assault problems, the idea is often advanced that some people are incapable of resisting their urges to make advances toward – even at times to rape – others who appear very attractive or provocative to them. Here, too, the free will stance would, if sound, pretty much discredit this way of understanding and open the way to assign responsibility to individuals who sexually harass, molest, or rape. Finally, there are those who attribute racist, sexist and other kinds of unjust sentiments entirely to their upbringing, claiming that given how or where they were brought up, it is impossible for them to feel and act differently from how they do. They should not be made to pay for something they cannot help – it is, after all, a mere accident that they are the way they are.
    It seems to me that these ways of looking at misconduct by human beings are undermined by the free will thesis, provided it is sound. But if it is not sound, these ways of thinking seem to be quite feasible and possibly sound. In any case, without a direct examina?tion of the connection between applied ethics and the free will issue, we should be candid that the field of applied ethics is fundamentally disintegrated and that questions of morality, politics, and public policy are going to be left in disarray.26


    (1) I have explored a number of crucial works in this area and found either no mention or barely a hint concerning whether human beings are the kind that possess free will. See, for example, Alan Goldman, The Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980), Albert Flores, ed., Professional Ideals (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publ. Co., 1988), Nicholas Fotion and Gerard Elfstrom, Military Ethics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), Lloyd J. Matthews & Dale E. Brown, eds., The Parameters of Military Ethics (New York: Pergamon-Brassey’s, Inc., 1989), and Darrell Reeck, Ethics for the Professions: A Christian Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publ. House, 1982). The same holds in both the general and specialized applied ethics works, as well as journal papers.

    (2) The injustice would arise only if the confusion were a result of culpable negligence. Yet, of course, the problem we are exploring is itself whether the very idea of injustice can be made sense of within the widespread confusion that abounds.

    (3) It is interesting to observe that already at this point of our discussion what has been termed “the determinist’s dilemma” confronts us, namely, could such lamentations even make sense concerning human behavior, including forming a belief in certain propositions, unless individuals had the capacity and power to undertake to change their conduct of their own accord. See James N. Jordan, “Determinism’s Dilemma,” The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 23 (September 1969), pp. 48-66.

    (4) B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam Books, 1972). I have discussed Skinner’s views in Tibor R. Machan, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974).

    (5) Arguably philosophers express their praise and blame somewhat subtly, not always using the most direct terms to signify blaming or praising. (Consider when philosophers criticize one another on grounds of logic alone – that kind of comment, too, invokes certain norms that presumably the target of criticism ought to heed!) Moreover, we may without any distortion, include within our class of beliefs and utterances various proclamation concerning what people ought or ought not to do, what sort of conduct and practices by persons and human organizations or institutions should or should not be carried out.

    (6) Not just journals but text books, conferences and university courses proliferate featuring claims as to what various professionals ought or ought not to do. And, of course, philosophers are active in the various controversies about multiculturalism, feminism, freedom of expression, etc., which abound on university campuses, so here, too, they immerse themselves in ethics and need to be clear about whether they are addressing themselves to human beings who can make free choices or who are being moved about by forces over which they cannot exert any independent, original control.

    (7) Some, such as John Kekes, argue that there can be exceptions to this idea. See John Kekes, “‘Ought Implies Can’ and Kinds of Morality,” Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 34 (1984), pp. 460-467. See, also, his Facing Evil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), which includes the bulk of the discussion from the aforementioned paper as well as others, such as “Freedom,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 61 (1980), pp. 368-385.
    First, even Kekes does not deny that it holds on most cases when we claim that someone ought or ought not to do something. Second, when Kekes argues that there are exceptions of “ought implies can” in such cases as when someone regrets (not) having done something even if there is no way he or she could (not) have done it, a problem arises. The point rests too much weight on a given understanding of what could be at issue. Instead of denying “ought implies can” on the basis of such rare cases, we might explain them as cases of confused thinking, of which surely is ample evidence. False guilt is clearly the material of a great deal of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there would be no point in identifying such false guilt if there were not instances of genuine guilt. Kekes attempts, of course, to develop an alternative analysis, based on his contrast between choice and character morality, claiming the latter makes better sense of our moral experiences. I would dispute this but this isn’t the place for that.
    One may view Kekes’s analysis as making more of ordinary language materials than may be warranted. Indeed, a bit of philosophy may help those caught in such confusions – something that may well be provided by psychotherapists in their somewhat indirect ways, compared to how philosophers would probably make the point to those who may need it but may have to be approached somewhat gingerly.
    It is also to be noted that in Kekes’s discussion “choice” is ambiguous: it could mean selection” as well as “initiation,” yet the free will thesis requires the latter sense; the former is fully compatible with determinism – animals, as well as anything in motion, may be said to be involved in making selections. Indeed, Kekes, in his paper “Freedom,” as well as in discussions at the 1981 Summer Liberty Fund Seminar, In Santa Barbara, California, argues for a conception of freedom as involving not being made to do what one does by others, doing things on one’s own. In other words, when one makes one’s selections oneself, one is free. But that one initiates the actions one takes, including the mental processes that selection presupposes, is denied by Kekes, who thinks modern science renders this incongruous. I argue, below, as well as in my books, op. cit., The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner and Individuals and Their Rights (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., Inc., 1989), that science does not preclude the initiation of our behavior. I return to this point later in this discussion.

    (8) Not that some philosophers do not worry about the matter. But they are not among those who contribute to the various burgeoning sub-fields of applied ethics.

    (9) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

    (10) New York: Basic Books, 1974.

    (11) Brian Barry, Political Arguments (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), Nicholas Rescher, Distributive Justice (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).

    (12) Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. XLVII (Newark, DE: American Philosophical Association, 1975), pp. 5-22.

    (13) Ibid., p. 21.

    (14) Of course, these general schools divide into many subsections based on innumerable refinements on the main features of these broadly characterized schools. Some of them may not agree with the position I ascribe to them above. Yet there need be little argument about this here, for in their central claims these views do find it unlikely, if not outright impossible, philosophy proper to handle normative, especially ethical and political, problems.

    (15) One may suppose that this provision is part of the process so as to avoid total arbitrariness which intuitionism per se wouldentail. Yet there is reason to think that introducing the proviso robs the method of its independence. See, Tibor R. Machan, “A Note on Independence,” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 419-421.

    (16) These are only the most prestigious of the ethics and public affairs journals. We can also include The Journal of Value Inquiry, Business and Professional Ethics Journal, The Journal of Business Ethics, and Environmental Ethics, where this practices still pre vails. Obviously, there have also been exceptions. But the connection between substantive ethical claims and the free will topic is rarely explored, as indicated by the works listed in Note 1.

    (17) I did, in fact, so argue in op. cit., Machan, “A Note on Independence.”

    (18) Rawls, op. cit., A Theory of Justice, p. 104. Incidentally, if this view isn’t a kind of meta-ethical position, not much else would qualify. In light of Rawls’s “independence” thesis it is difficult to see why he can rest any beliefs on it. Furthermore, once the topic is broached, it would be instructive to see what exactly Rawls’s view on this topic is – to wit, if it is only “largely,” what little bit of self-responsibility can we expect human beings to have and how is to be accounted for in understanding ethics and public policy matters?

    (19) I discuss some of this in greater detail in Tibor R. Machan, “Rescuing Victims – from Social Theory,” in Diane Sank and David I. Caplan, eds., To Be a Victim, Encounters with Crime and Injustice (New York: Plenum Press, 1991), pp. 101-116. See, also, Tibor R. Machan, Capitalism and Individualism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), for a discussion of the impact of the social scientistic position of economist on their explorations of which of the various live competing political economic options has the greatest merit as system of human community life.

    (20) The mechanistic model allows for nuanced differences based on highly technical amendments to the broad framework contributed by, say, quantum physics. Yet, that will not change the basic result, namely, that self-responsibility is disallowed and, thus, ethics rendered impossible.
    Of course, challenges exist – e.g., those advanced by Karl Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and its Brain (New York: Springer International, 1977) and John C. Eccles, Evolution of the brain: Creation of the self (London: Routledge, 1989). Popper and Eccles argue that quantum mechanics makes room for free will in some fashion, although they seem to adopt a new dualism, reminiscent of Kant’s project. The effort has not resonated with much approval within the community of philosophers, let alone moral and public policy theorists. Part of the problem is that quantum mechanics, especially the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, does not provide ethics with a metaphysical but only a pseudo-epistemological grounding, leading to the possible result that randomness is part of the universe. This is not at all the same as self-responsibility.
    In social scientific circles, too, there have been dissenters – e.g., Isidor Chein, The Science of Behavior and the Image of Man (New York: Basic Books, 1972) and Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (New York: Bantam Books, 1969). It is fair to note, however, that these did not make an impact in applied ethics.

    (21) One may argue that all the determinist is saying is that it would be better to believe in determinism than not to, not that one ought to. Yet the “ought” is implicit in our addressing ourselves with the idea, since that only make sense with the expectation that we may change our minds. Some of this is discussed in Joseph Boyle, G. Grisez and O. Tollefsen, Free Choice (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976). See, also, op. cit., Jordan, “Determinism’s Dilemma.”

    (22) Roger W. Sperry, Science and Moral Priority (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) and his numerous technical papers in such journals as Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.

    (23) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. II: ch. 5 1106a2, 1113b13. It is interesting that Kekes, in op. cit., Facing Evil, classifies his own views as akin to those of Aristotle, in virtue of their being on the side of character as distinct from (Kantian) choice moralities. Yet, Aristotle connects moral virtue with choice and ties being vicious and virtuous to our power to be one or the other. These feature’s of Aristotle’s ethics – or rather metaethics – appear to place Aristotle’s version of character morality within the class of choice moralities.
    Indeed, it is arguable that Kekes’s “ethics” is only a theory of value, with little to say about morality as such, which is a very special category of value, namely, value the realization of loss of which the agent can bring about on his or her own (within, of course, the requisite setting in the world). When Kekes explains morality, he in fact describes only a theory of values based on the enhancement of human life. Yet many factors enhance or damage human life, some of them brough about by persons, some of them not, so it is important for the cogency of any bona fide morality that personal initiative be explained.

    (24) To pick just one topic, what is “lack of fairness” if not a lack of integrity as applied in a certain domain of one’s conduct?

    (25) John Kenneth Galbraith, “The Dependence Effect,” reprinted in numerous business ethics texts and collections, from his work The Affluent Society. See, for example, Thomas L. Beauchamp and Norman E. Bowie, Ethical Theory and Business (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983). See a discussion of this issue in Douglas J. Den Uyl’s essay on advertising in Tibor R. Machan, Commerce and Morality (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988). See, also, F. A. Hayek’s essay, “The Non-Sequitor of `The Dependence Effect’,” in a few business ethics collections – e.g., ibid., Beauchamp and Bowie.

    (26) I wish to thank Greg Johnson and the editors of the Journal of Applied Philosophy for their suggestions for improving this paper.

    *Tibor R. Machan is Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama, 36849 U.S.A. During the academic year of 1992-93 he was visiting professor of philosophy at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York 10996 U.S.A.

  22. Now THAT’s a threadkiller!

  23. DAR: Our complexity does make us different. We don’t haul stones that fall from a mountainside onto a house into court, but we do haul people who cause stones to fall onto a house by blowing up a mountain into court. Whether they are punished civilly or criminally depends on our evaluation of their intentions.

    In any case, if you think that we are different from stones falling from their zenith, what does that difference consist of? What is contra-causal free will? And why do we need it?

    [sigh] (1) In what moral sense does it make us different? (2) Yeah, I’ve heard we have both criminal and civil courts. (3) The difference lies precisely in the stone not being able to do other than what it does. (“Contra-causal free will,” btw, is definitional, kinda like “non-square circle”)

    Whether we need free will or not is beside the point. It either exists or it doesn’t. Which is it? If it doesn’t, they let’s at least stop talking in terms of the blameworthiness of any sort of human behavior and be good rigorous utilitarians (which, necessarily on this view, we are determined to be, anyway), forget all this nonsense about a person’s intentions or (illusory) ability to do otherwise, etc.

    BTW, I’m determined (in the good sense of that term) not to read the monograph posing as a comment above.

  24. What Tibor said

  25. And JasonC wins the tread! (Of course, it was inevitable.)

  26. Er, thread. Typos are inevitable, too.

  27. Boy, that Tibor R. Machan guy sure can type fast.

  28. I blew a hole in Mrs. Richard Holmes
    And her husband stupidly stood up
    As he screamed, “You are an evil man!”
    I paused a while to wonder:
    If I have no free will then how can I
    Be morally culpable, I wonder?
    I shot Richard Holmes in the stomach
    And gingerly he sat down
    And he whispered weirdly, “No offense,”
    And then lay upon the ground
    “None taken”, I replied to him
    To which he gave a little cough
    With blazing wings I neatly aimed
    And blew his head completely off

  29. “I just don’t understand how someone’s mental state ever came to be relevant to questions of guilt and innocence. There’s guilty and there’s didn’t do it. Culpability is for sentencing.”

    Accidently swinging a sledgehammer into a coworker who quietly snuck up behind you and got hit on the backstroke and killing them, even though you didn’t know and couldn’t have known they were there

    is not the same as

    Throwing a sledgehammer at someone because you’re angry at them, but intending to miss and just scare them, and killing them

    is not the same as

    Someone pissing someone off so much that in a sudden fit of rage you kill them with a sledgehammer

    is not the same as

    Planning in advance to kill someone in a dark alley with a sledgehammer, killing them, and then getting fingered by an eyewitness who accidently happened upon the crime

    Four situations, all resulting in a person killed with a sledgehammer, with four distinctly different levels of culpability due to the state of mind of the killer.

  30. I should’ve had a V-Sledgehammer at 5:08 pm.

  31. s/b 5:02 & 5:05. Carry on.

  32. It’s a mystery to me why being crazy is considered a defense. Crazy people are capable of understanding the law, and thus being deterred by punishment, just as the rest of us with more conventional motives. The only people who perhaps should be given a free pass are idiots. But for some strange reason “I’m stupid” is a less effective defense than “I’m crazy”. Go figure.

  33. We punish people for crimes because of the SOCIAL CONTRACT. I don’t mess with you, you don’t mess with me. If you do mess with me, you get punished. If I mess with you, I get punished.

    This has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with “free will.” Free will does not exist in any form.

  34. As said by Ridgely above, we either have free will or we don’t. It’s a scientific question.

    1. And who, pray tell, signs a social contract but someone who can choose to do so and take responsibility for failing to abide by it. Also, why do determinists so frequently criticize those who support free will if they believe these folks cannot help what they do? Que sera, sera!

  35. DAR –

    I think the debate about free will is flawed by the fact that free will opponents [which you sound like] have an unrealistic standard for what constitutes free will. You define it in such a way that it cannot exist.

    [This is not unlike the problem around the concept of “proof”, which has similarly been defined into impossibility by positivists – but that’s a topic for another day.]

    For free will to exist, in my view it’s not necessary to prove that all of one’s thoughts and decisions are completely independent of environmental and neurochemical influences. All that’s necessary is that, even given the genetic, environmental, and chemical influences that come to bear on our actions, there is a moment before each discrete action where we ask ourselves, “Do I do this or not?” and have the opportunity to say both yes and no. This is true regardless of whether we have an equal opportunity to say yes and no, and even whether we have a fair opportunity to say either yes or no.

    I may be genetically predisposed to have a large appetite, I may be environmentally conditioned by my upbringing to want to eat often, I may be chemically depressed and craving chocolate-released endorphins, I may not have eaten for two days – but I still have the chance before I steal a cookie to think, “Should I do this or not?” Some determinists argue that this apparent reflection is illusory, but that goes against literally every experience I have ever had as a conscious human being. You’re going to need a lot more proof to overcome the apparent ability to choose I have in my direct experience.

  36. Fluffy,

    I like your analysis, but I think it misses the basic question.

    How do higher level emergent properties of matter (also known as minds) push around deterministically controlled collections of matter (bodies/objects)? If the interactions of each and every atom that makes up you and your environment follow the deterministic laws of physics, and your mental states are an embodied property of your body, then how do the top down influences move the lower level atoms? How are the deterministic physical law following atoms that make up your body and the environment pushed around by the freely choosing mind? What is the point of leverage?

  37. Our complexity does make us different.
    Humans and fruit flies are certainly unique in the animal world.
    Do Fruit Flies Have Free Will?
    Science Daily – Free will and true spontaneity exist … in fruit flies. This is what scientists report in a groundbreaking study in the May 16, 2007 issue of the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

  38. Fluffy, do computers have free will? If not, why not?

    Anticipating one possible response, computers are not predictable (in general). That is, there’s no easier way to “predict” what a computer will do than actually running the computer. Having done so, the result is repeatable if there is no random element. But there often is a random element – user input, for example. So computers are neither predictable nor repeatable.

  39. Fluffy, I am far from being a free will opponent and was only (though freely) trying to point out the consequences and implications of that view.

  40. If we have no free will, we are unable to change our basic nature.
    I believe that, but I also think there is an argument to be made for our “free will” ability to change the actions and habits that our basic nature sets us on a course toward.
    I have alcoholic tendencies, and am subject to depression, just like generations of my family before me.
    I however have chosen to fight this basic nature of mine through meditation and physical exercise.
    Therefore, in some way — call it “free will” or not — I have enacted a sort of anti-determinism in regards to my basic nature.

  41. “Four situations, all resulting in a person killed with a sledgehammer, with four distinctly different levels of culpability due to the state of mind of the killer.”
    I think jh’s post sums everything up nicely. I would say, given his examples, the insanity defense is equivalent to number one and so no culpability exists.
    “Crazy people are capable of understanding the law, and thus being deterred by punishment, just as the rest of us with more conventional motives.” Max, you need to actually read what is entailed by the insanity defense, because part of the essential elements of the M’Naughten version most commonly used is that you must prove as one of the prongs, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE LAW. At all. In fact, you have to prove that they DID NOT KNOW THE NATURE OR QUALITY of the action they did. That’s way out of it. Now you,nor I, were at the Yates trial. From what little we know it sounds fishy that this lady had no concept of what she was doing and that it was wrong/illegal. But she proved it beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 TEXAS JURORS, who are not exactly known for their criminal justice leftism. So why not admit we just were not there in that courtroom and we all don’t know much about what we are talking about before we run around trying to get a policy that has been a part of our justice system and worked out for five centuries tossed out (talk about your Hayekian evolution of common law norms!).

  42. Libertarian Determinist – I’m sure that’s not what you meant to write.

  43. I mean, I’m sure it is.

  44. I mean, I can’t be sure. Can you?

  45. Neu Mejican is right. All of the talk about “predisposed to being an alcoholic because my parents were alcoholics” has pretty much nothing to do with determinism.


  46. Neu –

    As I said above, my personal experience – and everyone else’s, if you are honest – provides you with overwhelming evidence of apparent free will.

    The counterargument you’re offering – that the appearance of free will is an illusion – requires substantial evidence to overcome the apparent direct experience of everyone of free will.

    “Substantial evidence” would, in my opinion, consist of the ability to map the current physical state of my mind in its entirety, and the further ability to predict future states of my mind based on that current state. Until you can do that, your argument essentially boils down to “Well, it must be a deterministic system, because we can’t imagine how it would not be – even though we can’t really show you exactly in what way it is a deterministic system.”

    It’s quite likely, by the way, that quantum uncertainty would prevent you from ever achieving the level of knowledge necessary about the present state of my mind, or anyone else’s mind, to be able to map it and predict its future development.

    Leaving aside the seemingly insurmountable problem of evidence here, there’s the entire question of why a deterministic chemical system would develop the illusion of consciousness and free will in the first place. It’s an illusion that seems superfluous. I’d call it vestigial, but it doesn’t even seem to have a vestigial use. If it’s all just billiard balls clicking on a table anyway, why would the illusion of consciousness develop? Why would the appearance of free will develop? Why invest energy in developing and supporting a vast mental apparatus to verbalize one’s actions to oneself?

  47. Tibor’s comment below seems to actually point towards determinism. Our will does not come out of a vacuum but is partly to wholly the result of brain mechanisms. I would argue it’s the combination of brain mechanisms interacting with environmental influences, which also refutes the free will argument.

    Tibor, or someone using his handle, seems to misunderstand what determinism is. And it is not defined by whether or not, or the degree to which behavior, can be predicted. All it says is that behavior is caused, not how predictable it is. It doesn’t matter what it is caused by to what degree it’s in the brain or the body or from experiences or how these forces interface, just that some combination of forces cause behavior.

    It’s fine to believe in ‘will’ but that’s very different from the weird, noncausal notion of ‘free will.’ Also, ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’ is an interesting topic of social conversation but is not a scientific construct. We do not know that it exists independent of the brain anymore than we know that a God exists.

    “Finally, there is also the evidence of the fact that we do seem to have the capacity for self-monitoring. The human brain has a kind of structure that allows us to, so to speak, govern our?selves. We can inspect our lives, we can detect where we’re going, and we can, therefore, change course. And the human brain itself makes it possible. The brain, because of its structure, can monitor itself and as a result we can decide whether to continue in a cer?tain pattern or to change that pattern and go in a different direc?tion.”

  48. Further rambling (but non-random…truly there is no random) comments.

    Even if I accepted the reality of a ghost in the machine, a mind independent or superceding the brain/body, or even an ethereal purple gnome with controlling or influencing powers over all phenomenon, these would still be causal agents supporting the notion of determinism.

    It could be that supporters of the free will concept mistakenly think that determinism is synonymous with notions of predictability. But predictability lies outside the scope of the free will/determinism argument.

    Even so, I support the thrust of this article. Even if all behavior is found to be determined by causes, that in no way suggests that perpetrators not be held culpable for crimes. The utilitarian argument still holds that the populace needs to be protected from criminal behavior, no matter the unique source of determining agents involved in the criminal act.

  49. Good one, scurve…

    I have a theory about ‘the point of everything’ being interaction and subsequent change. We are a physical filter (or metaphysical, or whatever, this would be a long post going down that road) that changes with experience. The universe changes with interaction and identifiable discrete elements (in this case, people) within the universe do the same.

    Seems straightforward enough to me :).

    We don’t have ‘free will’ as many would perceive it, but we are a construct that modifies that which it experiences and is modified in turn. The weaver and the weave are one…

    The ‘no free will’ element is where we CAN NOT modify outside the construct that we are.

  50. Predictability does not lie outside of the free will / determinism argument.

    If there is no element of self-direction in thought, it should be possible to predict a future mental state by reviewing the structure of a present mental state. If we never reach the level of knowledge about the process of consciousness that allows us to do this, we can never have a sufficient level of proof that all thought is determined.

    The inability to predict future states is exactly where the Newtonian vision of the universe broke down in physics. The Newtonian model, if valid, should have been able to predict everything based on knowledge of present states. It turned out that it couldn’t do that at the subatomic level, and it was disproven thereby.

    Determinists seem to think that debunking free will is a matter of proving that all thinking is physical, and it’s nothing of the kind. Thought can be physical but not determined in advance.

  51. Fluffy,

    “Determinists seem to think that debunking free will is a matter of proving that all thinking is physical, and it’s nothing of the kind. Thought can be physical but not determined in advance.”

    Of what value is argument or proof to a determinist? Wouldn’t an assertion suffice considering that their opponants belief is predetermined?

  52. If there is no element of self-direction in thought, it should be possible to predict a future mental state by reviewing the structure of a present mental state.

    It is. The “prediction” consists of waiting to see what the brain will do. Now you may think I’m being facetious, but that is *exactly* how we “predict” what a deterministic computer will do: we wait for it to do it. There’s no shortcut, in general. (Suppose that a computer could predict what a computer would do, 1 second sooner. Then another computer could predict that one 1 second sooner….it implies infinitely fast computation!)

    Perhaps you didn’t really mean “predict”, but rather clone? It is indeed difficult to imagine cloning a human mind. It’s also really hard to make a perfect clone of an analog cassette tape – which is *designed* to be copyable! Only digital systems can be cloned, really, and brains aren’t digital, nor are they designed for ease of copying.

  53. Why invest energy in developing and supporting a vast mental apparatus to verbalize one’s actions to oneself?

    Change “oneself” to “other people” and it makes sense.

  54. wayaway, a more succinct way of putting it (courtesy of Scott Adams) is: people are moist robots. Let it sink in.

  55. Fluffy,

    Neu -As I said above, my personal experience – and everyone else’s, if you are honest – provides you with overwhelming evidence of apparent free will.

    I was not taking a position…your argument, however, doesn’t solve the problem, because it doesn’t address the main conundrum…What is the point of leverage that allows an emergent property of a collection of matter to push around the matter?

    Like Max pointed out, computational complexity (you should read Wolfram’s New Kind of Science if you haven’t) gets in the way of predicting what a complex/chaotic system will do, but that doesn’t mean it is not “deterministic” since its behavior can be caused by a simpler set of rules.

    Introspection gives us the question, but it doesn’t get us very far in solving the problem.

    FWIW, I don’t think quantum indeterminacy is the key (c.f. Penrose).


  56. Max, you need to actually read what is entailed by the insanity defense, because part of the essential elements of the M’Naughten version most commonly used is that you must prove as one of the prongs, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE LAW. At all.

    That was certainly not so with the John Hinkley case. In fact, it’s easy to prove beyond any doubt that he fully understood that shooting the President was illegal. It isn’t as if he thought that Reagon was a space monster or something.

  57. “Many people naively believe that free will, and thus personal responsibility and moral culpability, depends on the notion that people are somehow uncaused causers.”

    This strikes me as a straw man. Who actually believes that? The formulation evades the distinction, long made by Thomas Szasz and others preceding him (Wittgenstein, Ryle, Kenny), between causes and reasons. Human action is the result of reasons not causes. If I kill because I think the devil commanded it, that is not a cause. I could have told him to go to hell.

  58. Sheldon,

    I agree, sorta.

    The problem as I see it in terms of responsibility is a false dichotomy between peoples intentions and their self? The self doesn’t have intentions the way you have a bagel, it has intentions the way a bagel has crust. Intentions are a feature of the self, not a possession of the self. Now whether “reasons” are the same as “intentions” isn’t quite clear to me as you formulate it. It seems that a self has “reasons” only in a social sense…Reasons are the justification for your actions that you provide to others.

  59. Nee wrote: “How do higher level emergent properties of matter (also known as minds) push around deterministically controlled collections of matter (bodies/objects)? If the interactions of each and every atom that makes up you and your environment follow the deterministic laws of physics, and your mental states are an embodied property of your body, then how do the top down influences move the lower level atoms? How are the deterministic physical law following atoms that make up your body and the environment pushed around by the freely choosing mind? What is the point of leverage?”

    From Gilbert Ryle: “The fears expressed by some moral philosophers that the advance of the natural sciences diminishes the field within which the moral virtues can be exercised rests on the assumption that there is some contradiction in saying that one and the same occurrence is governed both by mechanical laws and by moral principles, an assumption as baseless as the assumption that a golfer cannot at once conform to the laws of ballistics and obey the rules of golf and play with elegance and skill. Not only is there plenty of room for purpose where everything is governed by mechanical laws, but there would be no place for purpose if things were not so governed. Predictability is a necessary condition of planning” (The Concept of Mind, 81).

  60. Following Max: if stupid people should be punished less severely, because they understand the law less, should smarter people be punished more, because they understand the law better? I don’t think so, because conforming to the law is based in large part on things like personality, impulse control, etc., and not rational evaluation / understanding of the law.

    Ronald: let’s say that we know something specific about violent criminals. For instance, they on average have serotonin levels that are two standard deviations below the mean. Should a violent criminal who has a normal serotonin level then be tried more harshly, since he doesn’t have this expalantory feature?

    By the way, I think Reason, by its embrace of Szaz, renders itself ill-equipped somewhat to deal with psychiatric issues, in the same way The Skeptical Inquirer is poorly equipped to deal with Vatican in-fighting.

  61. Sheldon,

    Ryle only points out that there are many levels on which to analyze the events. It doesn’t get us very far down the road to an explanation of causation/free will.

    To simply state that there is “plenty of room for purpose where everything is governed by mechanical laws” is to state a position, but not to supply any support for that position. That is simply a belief that Ryle holds.

    For what it is worth, the basic level at which these question must first be answered is at the level that Stuart Kaufman has been doing research- the point at which non-living becomes living. How do non-living elements end up combining in a way that creates a living entity? Is it simply a feature of complexity, or is there something specific that needs be present to bridge the gap? Free will occurs at a level well below consciousness, imho.

  62. There’s a lot of talking “by” people in this thread.

    I’m curious how people here conceptualize free will. Is it a supernatural phenomena? Does it exist in the material world?

    Free will seems just another mythological belief, desperately clung to by the vast majority of people in the same way their hold thier myriad religions so dear. More supernatural nonsense.

  63. Neu–

    “The self doesn’t have intentions the way you have a bagel….”

    I agree: it is metaphorical to say one “has” intentions or reasons. Those “things” do not “exist” anywhere in the way bagels exist. “Mind” is not a noun–it’s a verb, as Szasz insists. One intends. Statements such as that are irreducible. To seek to explain them in terms of neuro processes is to commit a grave category mistake.

  64. I’ve never understood why people think that determinism and free will are at all inconsistent. I think this is related to what Sheldon Richman is getting at, and what Neu Mejican means by saying that “the self has intentions the way a bagel has a crust” (nice phrasing, by the way). My actions are determined by the sort of person I am, by my experiences and my history. I don’t think anyone denies that the decision I make right now is largely a product of experiences I’ve had in the past, and of the way I’ve been taught. When my alarm went off this morning, I got up and went to work. In some other universe, I could have rolled over and gone back to bed. But in the actual universe, I would never do that, because that’s not the sort of person I am. Put me in that exact situation ten times and I’ll go to work ten times, because that’s who I am. So my decision is determined.

    The problem comes in when people who think they’re materialists or quasi-materialists have a subconscious dualism sneak back in through the back door. You think of the self as something separate from the brain chemistry; so if the chemistry causes you to make decision X, you view that as something external to your self forcing your self to do a particular thing. Since you have the subjective experience of having choices, you conclude this doesn’t happen. What you miss is that your subjective experience of decision making is precisely the experience of your brain chemistry running to conclusion. There’s no self external to the wetware that the wetware forces thoughts upon. The self is the wetware.

    So we can view the same series of events through two different lenses (just as I can look at the same phenomenon as a complex structure of protons, neutrons, and electrons, or as a table). In the first, we see my experiences and history and beliefs (shaped by my experiences and history) cause me to become a particular person, a person who makes decision X in situation Y. In the second, we see a sequence of events shape the way a brain is wired, such that when situation Y occurs the brain goes through a complex series of chemical reactions and causes decision X. I, as an actor, make a decision, but I couldn’t have made any other without being a different person, which I’m not.

  65. Sheldon-we cross-posted. Why is attempting to explain intentions in terms of neurobiology a category error? I mean, often that’s not the useful way to look at it, but it’s equivalent and sometimes more powerful.

    More importantly, why is it a category error to claim that there are underlying neurobiological processes? A claim that thoughts and intentions happen independent of the wetware seems self-evidently false to me (and experimentally disproven, given electrode-stimuli-to-brain studies and such).

  66. jagadul –

    I think that you’re mistaking the fundamentals of determinism. Determinism isn’t really about how your past experiences shape your actions. Or how your upbringing may shape your future. Nor is it about “what kind of person” you are.

    Determinism is what you get you remove dualism and supernatural phenomena from the realm of human experience. If there isn’t any supernatural, if we’re all comprised of physical material bouncing around the universe, then free will can not exist.

  67. jadagul –

    My spelling is horrific right now.

    Or am I just developing dyslexia?

  68. LD, once you remove dualism and supernatural phenomena, then “what kind of person you are” reduces to “physical material bouncing around the universe”; that’s my point. If you’ve really divorces yourself from dualism, then the subjective experience of e.g. making a decision is just a different way of looking at that particular collection of bouncing material.

    The fact that quantum mechanics is true doesn’t mean I can’t talk about a table or a chair or a person. The fact that decision are driven and determined by brain chemistry doesn’t mean I can’t talk about the decisions, or that looking at decisions is never a useful frame of reference.

    And the way your past history shapes your actions is exactly what determinism is about. Where do you think your brain chemistry comes from?

  69. Sheldon,

    Szasz is wrong (and as poor an authority to bring into this discussion as I can think of). Mind is not a verb (except when used as in “I don’t mind if…”). Szasz also has a hard time with other words… he doesn’t seem to understand what the word “metaphor” means either, fur instance… (Szasz: A whale is a metaphoric fish.)

    To seek to explain them in terms of neuro processes is to commit a grave category mistake.

    But Jadagul has already addressed that point nicely.

    if we’re all comprised of physical material bouncing around the universe, then free will can not exist.

    That is a cop out, in my view. The question is how does free will exist given that we are all compromised of physical matter bouncing around the universe?

  70. The mind is to neural processes as the table is to molecular processes. The mind is an arrangement of specific kinds of matter interacting with its environment. It has a unique quality, however, in that it can choose the nature of that interaction.

    How does that come about?

  71. NM: What do you mean when you say the mind can choose the nature of its interaction? I suspect I disagree with you, but I’m not sure.

  72. “It is. The “prediction” consists of waiting to see what the brain will do. Now you may think I’m being facetious, but that is *exactly* how we “predict” what a deterministic computer will do: we wait for it to do it. There’s no shortcut, in general.”

    Max – I mean that if you had all the data about the chemical state of my mind at moment A, you could predict all of my future thoughts and decisions without actually keeping me under continued observation. With State A, you could write a nice little history of my subsequent mental states, and then demonstrate the validity of your predictions by reviewing what I actually did. When this can be done, I will accept the arguments of determinism.

    “I was not taking a position…your argument, however, doesn’t solve the problem, because it doesn’t address the main conundrum…What is the point of leverage that allows an emergent property of a collection of matter to push around the matter?”

    Neu – I can simply say that this has not yet been discovered or conceptualized by science.

    That leaves us both in a position where our arguments have not been sufficiently vetted by scientific discovery. Mine, because I don’t know how self-direction is possible for a purely physical process, and yours, because you don’t yet have enough data or knowledge of the mind’s operation to actually provide a model of how a deterministic mind functions and provides us with the day to day experiences we both obviously have.

    Since we are both in a position where we can’t fully explain our models, this throws us back on our simple and immediate personal observations. Our apparent free will is definitive until a competing model can be fully demonstrated.

  73. Fluffy,

    Fair enough.

    Jadagul: Choose, unlike a rock…react from within a range of options… animated… act upon…self-directed…nay, with seeming free will.

  74. I mean that if you had all the data about the chemical state of my mind at moment A, you could predict all of my future thoughts and decisions without actually keeping me under continued observation. With State A, you could write a nice little history of my subsequent mental states, and then demonstrate the validity of your predictions by reviewing what I actually did.

    Even a perfectly clonable computer system can resist such an effort. Just add a source of randomness.

  75. “Why is attempting to explain intentions in terms of neurobiology a category error?”

    Because neurobiological events are neurobiological events and intended actions are intended actions. We have different vocabularies for them because they are in different categories. (What’s an evil or praiseworthy neurobiological event?) Even if the former accompanies the latter, that can’t determine which way the causation runs. You have to explain how a neurobiological event causes, not merely accompanies, an intended action (that term is redundant; I use it for emphasis). How does a particular brain state cause someone to pull a trigger? In this sense, materialism resembles Cartesian dualism. But instead of having ghostly events causing actions, materialism has electrochemical processes in the brain doing so. Like dualism, materialism cannot forge the chain that causally links mental/brain processes with action.

  76. Neu–

    Assertions are not arguments.

  77. Sheldon,

    “Assertions are not arguments.”

    True, but they are a component of debate…and a way to state opinions. =^)

    On this topic opinion is pretty much all we’ve got.

    “How does a particular brain state cause someone to pull a trigger?”

    It doesn’t. A particular brain state IS someone pulling a trigger. Otherwise you fall into the dualism trap you point to. Electrochemical reactions don’t replace the ghost in the machine. Embodied mind gets rid of the dualism axiomatically and works from there.

    “We have different vocabularies for them because they are in different categories.”

    That is a pretty restrictive view of the source of vocabulary. Shading and construal of similar items within a category require different terms to communicate the distinctions/perspectives intended by the speaker.

  78. Sheldon,

    “Because neurobiological events are neurobiological events and intended actions are intended actions. ”

    Here is the way around that conundrum…

    Intended actions = a subcategory of neurobiological events.

  79. “Human action is the result of reasons not causes. If I kill because I think the devil commanded it, that is not a cause. I could have told him to go to hell.”

    Sheldon, a reason is just one form of a cause. Where does the reason come from? It’s caused by your thinking about it which in turn was influenced by earlier thoughts – some unique combination of brain processes, experiences, and other environmental influences. Even if it lay outside of this, if your reasons were stimulated from the zap of a lightning bolt from Zeus or a hammer blow from Thor, they would still be causes.

  80. Or even if the Devil influenced you but you told him to go to hell, your resistance was still caused by earier precedents: your upbringing, the development of your moral system, other environmental factors, etc.

  81. “The mind is to neural processes as a table is to molecular processes.”

    Neu, the mind as a verb makes more sense – I think Sheldon said that. We don’t even know that a mind outside of a brain exists.

    Fluffy wrote: “Predictability does not lie outside of the free will / determinism argument.”

    Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. Or maybe we are arguing separate points? My point is this: if the central argument about ‘free will vs. determinism’ is over whether we can perform actions not determined by a earlier precedents (determinism)- and these precedents include the formation of your brain (and what preceded that), your current neural processes, your upbringing (and precedents for that), and all other factors and their precedents (endlessly recursive) then it’s not germane to the point to look at whether the specific actions that occur as a result of these precedents are predictable. They might be predictable, at least in some cases, but in other cases, considering that the body of causes (when you consider all the precedents embedded in them) might be too complex to predict specific outcomes. Regardless of whether you can predict the outcomes however,is irrelevant to the question of whether actions have causes or not.

    “If there is no element of self-direction in thought…”

    There might be self-direction but this self-direction is also determined by earlier causes.

  82. Scurvy patch: Thank you! Exactly!

    Sheldon: We have different vocabularies for collections of atoms and for solid macroscale objects. Does that mean it’s a category error to say that a table is composed of atoms? It’s exactly the same idea when I say that an intention is a series of electrochemical reactions in the brain (not “is caused by”; the two are the same thing). And it’s pretty easy to “forge a link between brain processes and action.” If you stimulate the correct part of my brain, I’ll feel hungry, or remember my girlfriend, or contract the muscles in my index finger and fire a gun. That’s not all that controversial. You’re the one putting the ghost back in the machine, by saying anything is going on other than brain states and chemical potentials.

    NM: I’m not even sure whether we disagree at this point, although I think we do. I don’t think the mind is truly acausal, but it’s a complex system that reacts strongly to its environment. So it can ‘choose’ how it reacts. But the reaction is determined by the structure and the history of the brain in question; it’s not untethered to external causes.

  83. I wonder if the source of the disagreement lies in differing schemas, denotations, and connotations of the terms. Maybe we need to unpack them. What does “free” will mean exactly? If it means making decisions and taking actions based on no precedents (which in my schema includes the precedents that contributed to the evolution or creation of the human brain and its neural processes, and the interfaces between these neural process and all other environmental factors -and their precedents – as well as even allowing for the possibility of some sort of mystical entity at work) then I don’t see how the will could ever be conceived of as ‘free.’

    Perhaps some ‘free will’ advocates are making a narrower argument: they are merely suggesting that not all behavior can currently be demonstrated to be determined by physical forces alone. This sounds like the argument Richman is making when he distinguishes reasons from causes – that assumes that causes are merely physical forces. I could see possible merit in this narrower sort of argument but I think it’s a different one from the point I am making above.

    Perhaps I am merely taking a literalist position as I view ‘determinism’ this way: actions are caused or determined by prior events – but these events are not just experiences, nor are they just physical forces necessarily: they are the sum total of all actions, evolutionary processes, historical developments of human society as a whole as well as the development of an individual.

    So, when someone says, ‘free will’ I literally don’t know what that could mean, that a thought or action could appear out of thin air, without any prior event – physical, historical, or environmental force – motivating it.

  84. Neu writes: “Intended actions = a subcategory of neurobiological events.”

    Same category error. Resolves nothing. Creates its own conundrum. Can’t you see that? These are two different kinds of phenomenon. And even if action requires neurobiological events, that in itself means that these things are not equivalent. If A requires B, A cannot equal B. We really need to get over this juvenile reductionism. Persons are more than the sum of their parts, and some things cannot be reduced to others. The Infinite Regress may be a great amusement-park ride, but it doesn’t pass logical muster. Human action is irreducible.

  85. We really need to get over this juvenile reductionism.

    Juvenile reductionism gave us all scientific progress up to now. If and when it stops working, then you may have a point.

  86. Sheldon,

    I believe we are talking past each other.

    As for juvenile reductionism. Murry Gellman and I had a discussion about this very topic over some nice pasta once. He preferred the term naive reductionism, and I agree that reductionism has limits, particularly when discussing complex adaptive systems like minds. I don’t, however, think that that is at all germane to the discussion here. Saying that the two complex phenomena (neurobiological events and mind) are the same thing being analyzed at two different levels of detail is not the same thing as saying that the individual neuronal firings explain the pattern of firings (also called mind).

    Mind is the pattern of firings. An higher level phenomena…no reductionism involved. Minds are more than the sum of their parts…agreed.

    “Neu, the mind as a verb makes more sense – I think Sheldon said that. We don’t even know that a mind outside of a brain exists. ”

    Some basic linguistics are in order here.

    Verbs are words used to construe an entity as a process unfolding. Nouns construe an entity as a stable object. Importantly a process can be discussed in with either construal. If you point is that the mind is a process, then we don’t disagree, but “a process,” by the very fact that it has an article attached to it, is a noun. Likewise “a mind” is a noun, it is used to construe the process as a stable entity.

    Here is an example of a process construed as both noun and verb.

    Explosion = noun
    Exploding/explode/exploded = verb

    Try that same trick with the word “mind.”

    Mind = noun (as in “a mind” “I have a mind” “her mind”)
    Mind = verb (as in “that boy never minds” “he isn’t minding his parents” “he is minding the store”)

    Now in this discussion of free will, “mind” is clearly being construed in the first sense and not the second.

    There is no sense in which minds exist outside of brains. That does not make them verbs. Even if “mind” conceptualized as an “action” that brains perform, it is still a noun. Just like “a run” or “a dance” is an action that my body performs.

  87. Read the above assuming that I can type.

    you point = your point

    in with = with

    conceptualized = is conceptualized

  88. Jadagul

    But the reaction is determined by the structure and the history of the brain in question; it’s not untethered to external causes.

    I agree.

    However, as a complex adaptive system, a mind’s environment includes itself and it can react to itself as well as to “non-self” aspects of the environment. This is a quality that entities other than minds do not have. And it is this, I believe, that provides a basis for building an understanding of “free will.”

  89. Neu–

    Correction: there is no sense in which minding exists outside of persons. That gives a much better picture of what goes on. We don’t have minds. We mind, pay attention, heed, intend, deliberate, reason, etc. etc. etc. “Have a mind” is a metaphor, like having free will. It’s not literal. You don’t have something really (unlike with the brain). So there’s no need to answer the question “Where is it?”

    Max: Juvenile or naive reductionism did not give us scientific progress. That would have been reasonable and appropriate reductionism. Juvenile or naive reductions, like trying to reduce intending and thinking to chemical processes, leads to nothing but pretentious scientistic nonsense.

  90. “a reason is just one form of a cause.”

    I’m outta here.

  91. Okay, this is now off the main page but for what it’s worth, a couple of final comments.

    Sheldon’s ghost: it appears you conflate determinism with behaviorism – a common mistake. Behaviorism can just be one path that determinism can take; the behavioral school of thought though was already largely discredited in the late 1950’s by Chomsky among others. Thinking and behavior obviously include more than stimulus/response as Chomsky demonstrated by showing how the base of all languages, their ‘deep structure'(as opposed to the surface structure of specific languages) is basically wired in. How else to explain how children form patterned, regular rules not heard from the adult communities around them?

    But determinism, biological or otherwise, merely explains that actions, or even thoughts, have causes – so biological determinism, while eschewing craven behaviorism, simply asserts that thought is a more subtle form of matter (or we could even say that matter is a grosser form of thought). This takes care of the false Cartesian dualism and refutes this silly notion of ‘free’ will, which no one hear in support of it has been able to explain very well: how can any action or thought occur without any sort of precedents involved?

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