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William Murray, here’s the latest scholarly assault on free will

Following up on what you wrote in ”Stolen Obligations” above, the News desk thought you’d be interested in this Boston Review piece by philosopher of law Barbara Fried:

The reality is that we are all at best compromised agents, whether by biology, social circumstance, or brute luck. The differences among us are differences of degree that do not admit of categorical division into the normal and the abnormal. A morally serious inquiry into the requisite meaning of free will needs to face some basic facts about this society—for starters, that in the United States parental income and education are the most powerful predictors of whether a three-year-old will end up in the boardroom or in prison; that most abusive parents were themselves victims of abuse and neglect; that the norms of one’s peer group when growing up are powerful determinants of behavior; and that traits of emotional reactivity and impulsiveness, which have a large genetic component, are among the more robust predictors of criminal behavior. Such an inquiry would also need to address what evidence would suffice to conclude that Smith could have behaved differently. Is it enough that someone in a similar situation once pulled herself up by her own bootstraps? That the average person does? And how can we be sure that the situations are in fact similar in relevant ways?

Of course, we can’t ever be absolutely sure of anything, only morally certain.* and anything can be attenuated to nothing by degrees.

But when it comes right down to the rubber, people overcome their circumstances when they accept responsibility for what. they. themselves. do, irrespective of the fact that they were more likely to be pushed in that direction than someone else might have been. Not otherwise.

Fried’s is a more eloquent plea to ignore free will than most, because it relies heavily on the plight of the most unfortunate members of our society, but it stumbles on the same rock: We never improve things by saying people aren’t responsible, due to biology or evolution or society or whatever.

* morally certain = certain enough to make a morally defensible decision about the matter.

See also: the importance of directing the will in mindfulness meditation.

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10 Responses to William Murray, here’s the latest scholarly assault on free will

  1. Man those those random fluctuations of atoms in the brain sure can accomplish some amazing stuff.

    Marquese Scott – Portrait of a new era dancer – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slgu1KTgibM

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter”.
    J. B. S. Haldane ["When I am dead," in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209.

  2. “I plead “not guilty” by reason of no free will, your honor!”

    “Then by the power invested in me by physics, I sentence you to 30 days in jail.”

  3. Freedom of choice also binds us with a restraint that creatures lacking such freedom do not have. The writer Corliss Lamont asks: “How can we attribute ethical responsibility to men, and punish them for wrongdoing, if we accept . . . that their choices and actions are predetermined?” Of course, we cannot. Instinct-driven animals are not held morally responsible for what they do, nor are computers deemed accountable for the functions they are programmed to perform. Freedom of choice, then, places upon us a heavy responsibility and makes us accountable for our actions.

  4. The argument relies on the assumption that without “libertarian free will” there can be no moral responsibility.

    I think this is a false assumption.

    I think that that moral responsibility, far from being dependent on the existence of some putative “libertarian free will”, is what we take when we are willing to define ourselves as author of the decisions we make, and what we assign when we define others as the authors of their decisions.

    As Dennett says: the act of accepting moral responsibility is a Self-Forming Act.

    It doesn’t really matter whether we think of the self as some disembodied soul who weighs up moral decisions on the basis of available information, then gets the body to act on the result, or whether we think of the soul as embodied in the decision-making apparatus of the organism (and which weighs up moral decisions on the basis of available information and gets the muscles to act on the result).

    Either way, moral decisions have to be physically informed and physically enacted in order to be worth anything – in order to be moral. What matters is that we think of the self as morally responsible – that the thing I call “I” accepts moral responsibility. That doesn’t depend on what whether I think of my self as being material or immaterial.

  5. Barb:

    Freedom of choice also binds us with a restraint that creatures lacking such freedom do not have. The writer Corliss Lamont asks: “How can we attribute ethical responsibility to men, and punish them for wrongdoing, if we accept . . . that their choices and actions are predetermined?”

    I think a lot of the confusion that attends this issue is caused by use of the passive voice.

    predetermined by whom?

    There is no way of determining what choices a person will make, neither practically, nor theoretically. No possible agent could “predetermine”, i.e. figure out in advance, what I am going to decide next. The only way of doing it is to actually run the decision-making machinery – in other words, to “make the decision”. And that decision-making machinery is the very system I call “I”. So why should “I” not accept responsibility for those decisions?

    Of course, we cannot. Instinct-driven animals are not held morally responsible for what they do, nor are computers deemed accountable for the functions they are programmed to perform. Freedom of choice, then, places upon us a heavy responsibility and makes us accountable for our actions.

    Indeed, and I’d go further: our freedom consists of the capacity to value not only present freedom from personal want, but future freedom from want, for not only ourselves but others.

    And yes, that places a heavy responsibility on us, and makes us accountable to others – and our future selves – for our actions.

    I agree absolutely, Barb, that freedom, perhaps paradoxically, comes with restraints. Freedom without constraints isn’t moral responsibility at all. It’s those restraints that matter.

    Which is why I think it makes much more sense to talk about “moral responsibility” than “free will”. Moral responsibility can be thought of constrained will – volition that is constrained by considerations other than immediate desire.

  6. 6
    CentralScrutinizer

    An interesting question to me is:

    How could beings who have no liberatian free-will come up with the idea of libertarian free-will and contemplate it?

  7. #6 CentralScrutinizer

    How could beings who have no liberatian free-will come up with the idea of libertarian free-will and contemplate it?

    I can’t :-) Try as I might I cannot see what distinguishes libertarian free will from just ordinary decision making as practised by people, babies, and dogs. As Lizzie says – what is more interesting is what makes people moral responsible for their actions.

  8. The whole debate I feel really suffers from a lack of basic theistic systematic conclusions supported by a cumulative case argument for such conclusions (from which to build upon).

    Also, the whole Sam Harris “failure to separate (make a distinction of) physics, chemistry, math and circumstances” from a self-generating will and/or human consciousness has always been a pet peeve of mine. Reductive materialism clearly fails to understand any metaphysical aspect of human mind/soul. It therefore suffers from never understanding how we as creatures are also “little creators” (created in God’s Conscious Image)in God’s infinite universe. Without free will there could never be true self-generating love, true meaningful obedience or even real genuine relationship with the Holy Creator. Our labels of ‘libertarian free will’ or even the compatibilist vs. incompatiblist labels/categories often suffer from over simplicity and even sometimes suffer from over-analyzing (isolating on end result) rather than seeing a more comprehensive view of self-generation and (limited) self-determination from a systematic/theological P.O.V. I apologize if this sounds somewhat arrogant…but without some sort of divine/special revelation on the subject…I think human kind is (should be expected to be) rather clueless… and I encourage challenging/questioning all assertions based on scriptural systematic conclusions.

    Without free will there is clearly no meaning to obedience or moral good/evil because there is no real room for self-generated “intentionality.”

    From a theological view point we know we are created in God’s Conscious Image as “little self-generating creators” who can either create more good (obedience) or evil(sin)in God’s universe. This is really the only thing that makes any sense…or you don’t have real love, you don’t have self-generating “agreement” (you can’t agree with God if you can’t disagree with God), and you don’t have real obedience or even real genuine relationships. The real illusion is therefore NOT the illusion of free will… but rather the illusion that there is no Creator (and that we are not created in this Creator’s conscious Image/Likeness).

  9. “I think that that moral responsibility, far from being dependent on the existence of some putative “libertarian free will”, is what we take when we are willing to define ourselves as author of the decisions we make, and what we assign when we define others as the authors of their decisions.”

    That is a strange construction. You just said, (a) moral responsibility is independent of libertarian free will, and (b) we have free will because we are the author of the decisions we make (in other words, we have libertarian free will).

    You later seem to think that libertarian free will is bound up with the idea of a disembodied soul. Those are quite separable concepts. Libertarian free will only means that you had the power to do otherwise, and the difference between path A and path B was a choice, not the result of electrochemical laws.

  10. This really has to do with understanding that human “choice” is a completely different type of causal system than normal causal systems like chemistry and physics.

    In chemistry, the elements do not “choose” whether or not they want to react, bond or phase. Reduction oxidation is never the result of weighing pros and cons because it is not a causal system that is self-determined by a cognitive being/mind.

    Understanding that free will falls into a completely different type of causal system should be sin qua non…but somehow people like Sam Harris and other causal determinists completely lack practical wisdom in seeing that cognitive decision making is self-generated in a way that separates the content of mind from mere matter.

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