Free will, part 5 of 5-ish

Laws of nature / Causality / Determinism can be:

(A) Universal, applying to everything

(B) Unidirectional, making for controllers and the controlled

(C) Scientific.

But not more than two of (A)-(C). Causality is unidirectional and scientific, but not universal. Laws of nature are universal and scientific, but not unidirectional. Determinism as imagined in the Consequence Argument is universal and unidirectional, but not scientific. That’s why the Consequence Argument fails.

We think of the past as fixed and the future as open. Some people think science has shown that the fixed past is real and the open future is an illusion, but the truth is almost diametrically opposite. The idea that the whole past is fixed is an overgeneralization. It is a natural, and even rational, inference from our experiences as macroscopic beings, but still a mistake.

Even though (the evidence indicates) the past only depends microscopically on the present, what is advocated here is not a version of Lucretius and the “swerve”. It’s not that we get our freedom from microscopic past phenomena (such as quantum phenomena) in particular. The idea that freedom has to be handed down from past to present is wrongheaded to begin with. If in some particular case, a macroscopic past state did perfectly correlate with our macroscopic present action, that would still not be a problem: that macroscopic past state would then be up for grabs. (Aside for the really nerdy: This is why I am not a big fan of Christian List’s reply to the Consequence Argument, even though it may have a solid point. It concedes too much.)

Sourcehood arguments

An additional group of anti-free will arguments, vaguely similar to the Consequence Argument but different, are called sourcehood arguments. Let me just quote the first premise from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article:

1. We act freely … only if we are the ultimate sources (originators, first causes) of at least some of our choices.

This one wears its allegiance to a certain picture of time and causality on its sleeve. Why ultimate source? Why not just source? Because the proponent of the argument mistakenly thinks that physical events are in the general habit of bossing each other around, so that the only way we can avoid being controlled is to conjure something ex nihilo. Hopefully, we’ve covered this ground enough that the reader can see what’s wrong with that premise.

Moral Responsibility

People often do bad things when they could have done better things. Does that mean Retributivism is justified? (Hint: No.) Retributivism, on one definition, is the view that it’s intrinsically morally better that a wrongdoer suffer than that they do not, provided that they could have done otherwise.

Retributivism is not a metaphysical mistake. But in my view, it’s a moral mistake. Instead, punishment is justified when justifiable rules call for it, and discovering those rules depends on free and open moral dialogue among people who will be affected by the rule; people who are intent on reasoning together about how to get along. Others may not care to get along. We need a backstop to enforce livable social rules on those who would otherwise harm anyone who got in their way, and those who are a little more pro-social yet still go off the rails sometimes. But not everyone needs suffering to keep them in line, and those who do should not receive more than the minimum required.

There’s a more humane approach to justice that is common in many indigenous societies, and is making something of a comeback in ours. Here’s part of a transcript of an interview about restorative justice. Michel Martin is a show host, and Sujatha Baliga is a recent MacArthur Fellowship winner who works on restorative justice.

MARTIN: I’m glad you raised that as a crime of violence because I think many people may be familiar with a concept of restorative justice in connection with, you know, teenaged mischief, for example. Let’s say you deface somebody else’s football field before the big game, and they find out that you did it. And the consequence is you have to clean it up. In matters like this, in matters of serious crime and serious harm, where someone’s life is taken, where someone is seriously harmed, what, in your view, is the societal benefit of taking this approach?

BALIGA: Actually, restorative justice works best with more serious harms because we’re talking about people who are actually impacted. In that face-to-face dialogue, you can imagine it not having any heat or any value, really, in terms of the wake-up or the aha moments when we’re talking about graffiti versus when someone has actually entered someone’s home and taken their things, right? That’s a situation that calls for accountability, calls for a direct dialogue where someone takes responsibility for what they’ve done. So, to my mind, restorative justice – and it’s not just to my mind. There’s international data that shows that restorative justice is actually more effective with the more serious harms that people do to one another.

Emphasis added. A humane approach to justice doesn’t depend on the denial of free will or moral responsibility. Quite the opposite, in this case.

4 thoughts on “Free will, part 5 of 5-ish

  1. For me it boils down to that, as a living being, I have to act to survive. I am constantly offered at least the appearance of choices, and as an old saying goes, not choosing is still choosing.

    If strict determinism is true and I’m effectively just along for the ride, it’s still true that I apparently have to make apparent choices (or die).

    I can’t tell the difference, and I can’t do anything about it, so on some level I have to take it on appearances. “It is what it is.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If strict determinism is true, it’s a big phase space of the universe in your past and future light cones that’s just along for the ride. It’s all a matter of attitude.


    1. Phase space in a light cone doesn’t parse for me… Do you mean that my light cones contain vast volumes of spacetime I could potentially link to causally but instead I just wind through and link with only tiny threads of it?

      If so: True dat. 😉


      1. That, and a perspective on the links, especially on the bidirectional links. Namely, view the links from the here-now-you outward, as philosopher Carl Hoefer suggests in “Freedom from the Inside out”.


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