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Monday, June 04, 2007

A Coherent Account of Libertarian Free Will

Free will, it seems, requires the ability to do otherwise than one does, via the Kantian doctrine that “ought” implies “can”. If the hungry ought to be fed, for example, it seems this depends not a whit on whether they are actually fed or not. If the hungry could not have been fed, their being fed is impossible; to say they nevertheless ought to be fed is like saying someone ought to take a block of wood and carve it into a square circle. However, there is a powerful objection to the idea that free will even compatibile with indeterminism, which called the Mind Argument. Basically, it goes like this: If a given act R is contingent but uncaused, then, since it is contingent, nothing determines whether or not R occurs, and a fortiori I do not determine whether it occurs either. So if R were contingent and uncaused, it would not be under my control. Thus it appears that if my actions are undetermined I do not have free will. Nor, it seems, can we resolve the issue by holding that I will to will to will R, and so on to infinity. My mind surely does not encompass an infinite number of mental acts. But if the regress of willings terminates, there will be at least one member of the series which is uncaused. And so we're right back where we started.

In consequence of the above, we have the following criteria for a free act: In order to be free, it must be contingent, yet it must also be something I bring about. For each act of will, I must have brought it about by freely willing it, yet we must not launch ourselves on an infinite regress. My solution is something I will call the Closed Causal Loop theory of free will. There must be at least two acts of will which cause each other. The reason we need two acts is this: If there were only one act, it could not “cause itself” in any non-redundant sense, because any entity E is conditionally necessary given E no matter what E is. It would thus not be distinguished from any other act as far as "self causation" is concerned. If there are at least two acts, however, each can cause the other in the ordinary sense because they are distinct. According to this theory, a primary act of will A causes a secondary act of will B and has both B and the action chosen as its objects. B in its turn causes A and has A as its object[1]. A and B jointly cause the action to be performed, since if either A or B had not occurred then neither would the other, and if both had not occurred then neither would the action.

Is this view defensible? The following sort of objection could be raised. Since A causes B and B causes A, each will occur if the other does. So either both occur or neither occur. Call the mereological fusion of A and B ‘S’. Since my acts of will are supposed to be free and hence contingent, it is also contingent whether or not S, their fusion, occurs. So if S occurs, then by hypothesis I cause A in virtue of causing B and B in virtue of causing A, but I do not cause S, because if something is contingent it cannot “cause itself” in any non-vacuous sense, and there is nothing besides S in virtue of which I could cause it. But now the proponent of libertarian free will faces the same problem as before: If I do not cause S then its occurrence or non-occurrence is not in my control, so I am not responsible for it. By the principle that I am responsible for x and I am responsible for y if and only if I am responsible for the mereological fusion of x and y, if I am not responsible for S I cannot be responsible for A or B either.

But I think there is an easy reply: It is primarily actions, including acts of will, for which we are held responsible. However, the mereological fusion of two acts of will is not itself an act of will, any more than a mereological fusion of two ants is an ant. It is not the sort of thing I could be responsible for, for it is neither a willing nor an action of mine. It is only willings, actions of mine, or consequences of those actions for which I can be held responsible, and the fusion of two willings is none of these. It is therefore no defect that I do not bring it about. All that is required is that I be responsible for each act individually, not the conjunctive state of affairs that both obtain.

I have, of course, done nothing to show that this account is true, nor even that it is in the least compatible with what psychology and neuroscience have revealed about the mind (as, indeed, it very probably is not). Nevertheless, it seems at least conceptually coherent, and so I conclude that a coherent account of libertarian free will is possible. Irrespective of its truth or falsity, this account provides a counterexample to the Mind Argument as given above. There may be sound arguments for the incompatibility of free will and indeterminism, but the Mind Argument is not one of them.

[1] I hold that B does not have the action chosen as one of its objects, otherwise it is not clear to me that it would be distinct from A.


The Gay Species said...

"There must be at least two acts of will which cause each other."

What if an antagonist asserted that operations of the mind (consciousness, brain, etc) are mentally caused, independent of physical causality. So that, the physical acts of neurons firing (if that is the physical basis for "mind") may be physically determined, but that physical determination creates a "higher-ordered" pheonomeon of "thought/ consciousness / willing" etc? that is not bound to the consequences of physical determinism, even if it originates in a physically-determined manner?

An "explosion" has a physical cause, but is every "effect" from the smoke, fire, and et. seq., determined from the cause of the explosion. Don't other causal forces interact with vapor, air, to generate a different order of causal actions, in many cases, many forces operating simultaneously, velocity of wind, energy released, etc.

Is the Mind more constricted to determinism than an "explosion?" Since we have yet to correlate brain function with mental states, the physical basis for neural circuitry may simply unleash forces of different causal interactions of immense complexity, where even the mind may be able to reorder some of the reactions. Or is "thought" so tied to "material," that a direct correspondence is claimed?

If what I suggest is plausible, then you've committed a category mistake, imputing physical determinism to high-ordered mental states, which may not be governed by the same, or any, causal determination. And if the physical correspondence is direct, is it to Einsteinian Physics or Quantum Mechanics that the connection is determined?

Quirinius_Quine said...

Hi, sorry for the delay in replying, but (a) I've been busy, and (b) I'm not sure that I understand your objection, nor, to the extent that I do, how it relates to my argument.

You say: "What if an antagonist asserted that operations of the mind (consciousness, brain, etc) are mentally caused, independent of physical causality."

I don't think I said that mental operations are tied to physical causality. In the closing lines I did imply that a proper account of free will should be consistent with what we know about the brain and/or human psychology, but this in and of itself doesn't entail that acts of will are identical to certain brain events or that there is a one-to-one correspondence between them. Even if we assume that some form of interactionism is true, what we know about how the mind works should at least be *consistent* with neuroscience, even though it goes beyond it. So I think your objection rests on a misunderstanding of my position.

John Falicki said...

Well, I'm 57 years old and I've been studying philosophy, science, and psychoanalysis since my late teens, and I've come to this conclusion about Free Will: the human race is obsessed with fitting everything into *narrative* form (which of course presupposes a *linear* time), to make things intellectually tractable and easy to argue about using words. But I think free will transcends anything verbal, anything narrative, it can't be inserted into any linear framework without losing a lot, and indeed I think free will is likely trans-causal. I think we need to re-examine what our entire notion of WILLING really is, and that will require that we plow very very deep into the sheer concept of IDENTITY. *There's* the rub: Identity: a frontier that has barely been touched yet; we just talk around it and wave our hands and think we understand it, but we don't.