Against Determinism and Compatibilism

As I mentioned on my post defending free will (1), one of the alternatives to determinism and libertarian freedom is compatibilism. It is named as such due to its contention that moral responsibility and determinism can be harmonized. The compatibilist would join the libertarian in maintaining moral responsibility is a reality while agreeing with the determinist that persons are totally subject to causes outside of their control. In my previous post, I briefly outlined an argument for determinism based upon the forces of nature and physics and why I believe it fails, but in this post I shall present an argument for determinism which is not solely materialistic. Then, I shall demonstrate how the compatibilist approaches this argument, why this approach does not succeed, and why the libertarian approach is to be preferred.

The Argument for Determinism

Galen Strawson, a determinist, presented his argument for determinism in his work, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” His thesis is that determinism (hard, or causal, determinism) and moral responsibility cannot co-exist with one another, so if determinism is true, the concept of moral responsibility must be false. In defense of this view he presents what he calls the “Basic Argument” (BA). This argument is tuned with the intent of demonstrating human agents cannot be morally responsibility for actions committed. He outlines the argument as follows:

  1. Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself.
  2. In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects.
  3. Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.

His paper defends this argument against what he refers to as the intuitive sense human beings possess libertarian free will. Although he admits a person cannot escape this basic, intuitive notion, he believes the BA suffices to dispel any doubt these intuitions are merely illusions. Later in the paper, he breaks down the argument into more premises so that one can follow the logical steps he takes:

  1. You do what you do because of the way you are.
  2. To be truly morally responsible for what you do you must be truly responsible for the way you are – at least in crucial mental respects.
  3. You cannot be truly responsible for the way you are, so you cannot be truly responsible for what you do.
  4. To be truly responsible for the way you are, you must have intentionally brought it about that you are the way you are, and this is impossible.

Strawson employs a reductio ad absurdum to show why this is impossible. He asks the reader to suppose somehow that she has intentionally brought herself about to be the way she is, and that she has brought this about in such a way that she can be said to be truly responsible for the way she is. In order for this to be true, she must have already possessed a certain nature N in light of which she intentionally brought it about that she is as she is now. For it to be true her and her alone is truly responsible for how she is, she must be truly responsible for having had the nature N in light of which she intentionally brought it about that she is the way she is now. Therefore, she must have intentionally brought it about that she had the nature N. In this case she must have already existed with a prior nature in light of which she intentionally brought it about that she is the way she is now. Of course, one can observe where this train of thought leads, so it seems Strawson has employed an effective reductio ad absurdum to show one’s own self-determination is impossible because it leads to an infinite regress.

Apart from this regress, premises 1) – 4) are logically sound, so the conclusion follows from the premises. He concludes nothing can be causa sui in the way required to avoid determinism. Even if God possesses this kind of causal aseity, it cannot be applied to finite human beings. He views this argument as important to the discussion of moral responsibility and free will, so it ought not be easily dismissed as irrelevant as many often do.

If the BA is correct, then moral responsibility cannot possibly exist, so if the BA is correct, it contradicts the commonly held, basic understanding of justice. To punish someone for murder becomes as just as punishing someone for their natural hair color or the shape of their face. Strawson recognizes it is this conclusion which repels many persons from accepting the BA, but he does not think intuitions concerning moral responsibility are significant enough of a defeater to negate the argument although he admits they are compelling. He asks the reader to imagine herself with a 10 pound note (UK currency). If such a person were to walk to a bakery with the intention of buying a cake but instead sees a poor person shaking an Oxford tin can on the steps of the building, it is undeniable within that particular moment a person feels the pull between either option. It seems obviously true this person could ignore the poor person or give him the 10 pound note, but because of the BA, Strawson says, the person will go with the option which the complete sum of prior causes has led her to do. The moment of decision via free will is an illusion.

The Compatibilist Response

Writing in response to Strawson is Louis Pojman in his work, “Free Will, Determinism, and Moral Responsibility: A Response to Galen Strawson.” The main argument of Pojman’s work is Strawson’s BA against moral responsibility is not decisive. Arguments for metaphysical libertarianism and compatibilism survive his attack, so either side is justified in believing in moral responsibility. He defines metaphysical compatibilism (or soft determinism) as the view that only if determinism is true can moral responsibility not be denied. He calls Strawson’s position the causal thesis (or the determinist thesis) which is the view persons are determined by causal factors, so no one is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. He calls the position Strawson rejects the responsibility thesis which maintains persons are and must be responsible for their actions, and they ought to be praised and rewarded for their virtuous actions and blamed and punished for their vicious actions.

In reference to the BA, Pojman concedes premise 1). He admits that genetics and early environments are gifts and not accomplishments, but he does not think this means one cannot influence her future character. Further, Pojman agrees indeterminism is not a viable option either because it yields randomness, not free will. Therefore, he outlines the libertarian and compatibilist response in order to argue there are ways to undermine the BA.

The compatibilist accepts the causal thesis, but she seeks to reconcile it with responsibility. Even if human beings are causally determined, they still possess profound moral responsibilities. To justify this concept, Pojman makes a distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior. He pulls from Walter Stance in order to make his argument. Stace has argued the problem of freedom and determinism is a semantic problem. Freedom is acts done voluntarily, while determinism is the causal processes that underlie all behavior and events. He argues these are not incompatible.

Pojman uses the example of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi fasted because he wanted colonial rule to cease controlling India, so his act was free or voluntary. A man starving in the desert is not giving up food as a free act or voluntarily. Stance makes this distinction, “Acts freely done are those whose immediate causes are psychological states in the agent. Acts not freely done are those whose immediate causes are states of affairs external to the agent.” Both instances listed possess causal antecedents, but in Gandhi’s case, he is free while the man starving in the desert is not free. Often the compatibilist uses reasons as justification for actions. An agent is free as long as she is acting in line with reasons instead of internal neurotic or external causal factors. Reasons are not chosen, but they are desires with which persons find themselves. Then if free actions are caused by reasons which are not chosen freely, then free actions are in some sense determined.

Pojman lays out the following argument in favor of this view:

  1. The reasons R that someone S has for performing act A are not themselves actions.
  2. S could not help having R.
  3. Act A could nevertheless be free because it was not coerced by external causes (or irrational internal causes).
  4. Therefore, an action may result from having a reason that one could not help having, and the action is still free. (Conclusion 1).
  5. Therefore, an action resulting from a reason may be determined and nevertheless be a free action. So determinism is not incompatible with true moral responsibility. (Conclusion 2).

The compatibilist challenges the libertarian to produce an action that does not fit this formula. Any action is done for a reason, so reasons are determined while the acts in accordance with the reasons committed by human agents are free. The external causes do not directly determine the actions; they create the reasons which are acted upon by the person. Therefore, the compatibilist maintains that because of a person’s free adherence to these reasons moral responsibility can be upheld in light of determinism.

Why Compatibilism Does Not Succeed

The primary problem with the compatibilist solution is that it can be reduced to mere determinism without appropriate moral responsibility.

After presenting his argument, Strawson contends it is important to give an account of the kind of moral responsibility which is negated by the BA. He uses the examples of heaven and hell to demonstrate the moral responsibility he argues against. True moral responsibility is responsibility that if persons possess it then it makes sense to suppose that it could be just to punish some persons with torment in hell and reward others with bliss in heaven. Therefore, true moral responsibility is not merely something to be decided by any certain government; rather, moral responsibility has an ultimate significance to it.

Strawson believes the compatibilist response to his argument fails primarily because it cannot substantiate this level of moral responsibility. He asserts the only reason one acts in a specific way is due to how one is, and how one is remains totally beyond the reach of the individual. Even if reasons stand between external influences and actions, a person’s actions will always adhere to the strongest reasons one may have, and these reasons including their content and strength are outside of a person’s sphere of influence thereby making compatibilism only one step removed from total causal determinism. Moral responsibility becomes impossible in such a scenario.

A critique Strawson does not mention is that the compatibilist solution states that reasons are determined, but reasons themselves have moral responsibility attached to them. Reasons as understood by Pojman can be defined as the motivation or intention of a person for a particular action. They are the wants and desires humans possess which are prior to and inform actions. The problem then becomes that intentions or desires can themselves be worthy of praise or blame.

For example, suppose Jim is drowning in a lake. Michael walks by the lake to see Jim drowning and thinks to himself, “That is my friend Jim who is drowning. I ought to save him!” Michael then proceeds to save Jim by swimming him to shore. Let’s also say that instead of Michael finding Jim, Dwight finds Jim drowning instead. Dwight thinks to himself, “That is Jim drowning. He owes me money!” Dwight then goes to save Jim by swimming him to shore. Both Michael and Dwight possessed different reasons for saving Jim, so while their actions were the same, their intentions were different.

On the compatibilist solution, their reasons would have been determined while their actions would have been free, so only their actions would be subject to moral judgement. Since their actions were the same, they would both receive praise for saving Jim, but it is obvious they both do not deserve praise. Michael sought to save Jim because of their friendship (a noble desire or reason) while Dwight only sought to save Jim because Jim owed Dwight money (a selfish desire or reason), but because their reasons or intentions were determined while their actions were free only their actions can be judged as deserving of praise or blame. Therefore, compatibilism only makes actions morally praise or blameworthy which runs contrary to moral reasoning. The intentions of a person in performing a certain action matter just as much as the action itself.

The Libertarian Solution

Therefore, if the compatibilist solution to determinism fails due to both its reduction to determinism and its poor account of moral responsibility, can the libertarian solution provide a viable alternative to determinism? I submit it can.

Strawson does consider libertarianism which contends that persons are free and morally responsible agents who determine their own decisions, and he submits it does not work to defeat the BA. He quotes Robert Kane who says that persons have the power to make choices which can only and finally be explained in terms of their own will (i.e. character, motives, and efforts of will). If these choices begin with the will and not the causal events preceding the action, then causal determinism is not true, but Strawson argues the alternative does no better to secure libertarian free will. If efforts of the will shape character in a significant way, and result in a partly causally indeterminate nature, then the result is not free will but randomness even if the person is being shaped by already existing character. Therefore, a person’s actions cannot be deemed truly free because the cause of these actions are but the result of chance. Indeterministic natures and characters cannot credit moral actions because when a person acts in a way deemed moral, she is just lucky, not actually praise worthy. Therefore, libertarians are more hard pressed to justify moral responsibility than determinists.

Further, Strawson offers a thought experiment. Imagine a person has to choose between two choices: a moral choice A and an immoral choice B. A person will always choose what corresponds to their character or personality or motivational structure (CMP). Whatever one does she will do because of the way her CMP is, and since she neither is nor can be ultimately responsible for the way her CMP is (think back to Strawson’s regress argument), she cannot be ultimately responsible for what she does.

Before I respond to Strawson’s argument against libertarianism, a few weaknesses should be pointed out about the BA itself.

First, inherent within the article is a strong materialistic presupposition which does not take into account the possibility of an individual’s metaphysical parts (i.e. soul, will, etc.) which may stand apart from the influence of prior causes. This metaphysical aspect of human beings may most strongly present itself by way of intentionality and contemplation. The focusing and mediation of the mind may provide an effective out from the influence of prior causes.

The second weakness is his dismissal of intuition. Although not the intention of the argument, the BA does not give an account of intuition and seems to assume that because the BA is true, intuition must be a mere illusion. Especially when considering the strong sense of moral responsibility he provides using the analogy of heaven and hell, his dismissive treatment of intuition does not serve to dismantle the influence of this basic human experience especially in light of his seemingly materialistic presuppositions.

A third weakness is his failure to account for intentionality. It is not a topic he mentions in the article, but intentionality is not necessarily subject to prior causes in the same way something physical would be. It is conceivable as to how physical substances would be subject to prior causes (i.e. laws of physics), but it is harder to postulate how immaterial items would be. If he assumes intentionality (a mental state) can be reduced to brain activity (a physical state and something Strawson believes is certainly subject to prior causes), he needs to provide an argument as to why he thinks that is the case. If intentionality is not reducible to brain activity, it is conceivable that this mental state could break into the causal chain and spawn actions not deducible from examining prior causes.

Finally, the BA undermines reason and rationality itself. If the BA is true, this means that the beliefs one holds (even the belief that determinism is true!) are not the result of rational reflection and exploring the evidence in order to reach a conclusion. One is merely determined to believe what one does, and for hard determinists like Strawson, to come to a different conclusion is impossible. Therefore, while this does not eliminate reason outright (reason could still be a mechanism to reach a determined end), it makes the function of reason practically useless. After all, what is the point of using reason if there is only one determined end to be inevitably reached no matter what? The mechanism to reaching a determined end could have been anything else. Whether the mechanism was reason or merely a blind assumption makes no difference. Not only does this undermine reason but also knowledge and thereby the entire field of epistemology (the study of knowledge). Any argument which ultimately negates rationality itself is both ironic and undermines its own persuasiveness especially if the goal of an argument is to persuade others to accept a certain position. Compatibilism is also at a loss to answer this objection since the reasons for actions are determined; to believe otherwise is impossible for compatibilism.

Although not necessarily defeaters of the BA, these points should give one pause before accepting the BA outright.

Now, the problem with Strawson’s counter argument to libertarianism is it seems he almost sets up a strawman in arguing libertarianism maintains indeterminism which is false. Libertarians do not argue nothing is determined. They argue it is the self which does the determination at least for actions and intentions relative to the individual. Libertarians concede a person may be the causal result of circumstances beyond their control which may influence or incentivize behavior (i.e. genes, environment, etc.), but libertarians submit these do not determine behavior because of the self (in whichever way a libertarian might argue that manifests). Therefore, there exists no indeterminism in a sense, and to say libertarianism spawns randomness is to forgo libertarian accounts of intentionality.

Although Pojman is not a libertarian, he maintains the libertarian position, like the compatibilist position, can escape the BA unscathed. He defines metaphysical libertarianism as the position that if determinism is true, moral responsibility does not exist, but determinism is not true.

He submits that the libertarian position does not argue the agent completely creates her own self or CMP; rather, they simply maintain the self or CMP is not completely determined. Therefore, the will has the ability to act in ways not entirely dependent upon antecedent conditions. Actions as the result of free will are understood to be actions of deliberation. The self takes factors such as belief and desire into account in order to reach a contemplative decision. Furthermore, the libertarian would contest the regress argument because the self interrupts the causal process at some point to potentially change the course of events. Pojman quotes Roderick Chisholm and Richard Taylor who account for free choices by arguing for agent causation. In other words, the agents themselves are the cause of their own acts. This view rejects the idea the human being is an assemblage of material processes like sense perceptions; rather, the human being is a complex whole utterly distinct from mere mechanistic processes like physical objects are subject to. Some libertarians point to biblical verses like Genesis 1:26 where it says man is made in the image of God, and Strawson concedes God can create causa sui, so if humans are made in His image then perhaps humans also have the ability to make free, causally undetermined decisions.

Pojman states that unfortunately for the libertarian there exists no account for how agent causation occurs. The self is an unaccounted for mystery, but actions do at least intuitively seems detached from the laws of nature. Therefore, Pojman says the argument seems intuitively satisfying. The notion persons do cause their own actions via free will seems more intuitive than the idea all things are causally determined. Similarly, the libertarian rejects the determinist’s claim of being able to completely explain mental events on the basis of examining prior causes. The self is primitive.

This primitive self would have the ability to not only enact intentional change to the way she is but also negate the total determination of prior causes thereby negating premise 3 of Strawson’s longer version of the BA. The problem for the libertarian is then accounting for the self.

Although certain effects of the self can be demonstrated in everyday experience (i.e. rational reflection, intentionality, intuition, etc.), there does exist a more solid way to show how the self can break into the causal chain. Up until the 20th century, physicists viewed reality as a clock merely ticking away in accordance with the laws of physics. Human beings, as physical things, were merely acting in accordance with these laws as well, but with the rise of quantum mechanics came bizarre results which have affected how scientists view reality. As I explained in my previous post on free will, the double slit experiment is the cornerstone of quantum mechanics. This is because the experiment demonstrated that particles launched through a sheet with double slits would behave different relative to whether they were being observed. Further, no local or non-local physical variables have been determined to have affected these results. I go into more detail in my previous post which includes answering objections and providing references, but for our purposes now, if these experiments hold true then there exists empirical data demonstrating how the self can act to not only intercept prior causes but also effect reality itself as we know it.

For some persons, belief in God is based on not observing Him directly but rather observing His effects in their own lives. I contend that in the same way, the self as an agent with free will cannot be detected directly like prior causes may be, but it can be observed by the phenomena humans experience and the effects it produces.

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).


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