Blog Coordinator

« CFP: The Moral Domain | Main | CFP: Neuro-interventions and the Law »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Nice, civil conversation, thanks Tamler. Question: is there enough consensus among philosophers about determinism such that they could agree on how to fairly and accurately characterize determinism to the folk in surveys about free will and moral responsibility?

Hoping I’ve understood him correctly, Eddy says we shouldn’t present determinism as the idea that things had to happen the way they did, since that’s somehow prejudicial. But given conditions as they were in an actual situation, didn’t things have to happen as they did, (putting aside any randomness which imo can’t establish responsibility)? Isn’t that what the basic idea of causation as necessitation is getting at? Counterfactually, I might have done otherwise had circumstances, internal and/or external, been otherwise, but in an actual situation why suppose I would have done otherwise given the circumstances that obtained? In which case, why make the claim I could have done otherwise *in an actual situation*? To be fully caused, as I think Joshua and Eddy agree we are, means denying any unconditional, contra-causal sense of being able to do otherwise in a set of circumstances, that is, of being able to transcend causation by those circumstances. So it seems to me a fair description of determinism is that in real life as it transpires (as opposed to counterfactually) things had to turn out in the way they did, given the laws and the past. But I suspect some here will disagree.

Joshua and Eddy seem to agree that a question needing research is whether some significant proportion of the folk hold to some notion of a-causal or non-causal agency (as Eddy puts it) that conflicts with naturalism, or if instead there is some naturalistically acceptable description of being fully caused that most of the folk would be comfortable with and on the basis of which would say they have free will. Eddy thinks yes, Joshua not, and for the nonce I’m with Joshua since I’ve encountered too many folks (mostly not college students) who think that not being able to have done otherwise in an actual situation obviates an important kind of contra-causal freedom, what they often think of as free will. Not that this settles the question of what the preponderance of folk believe of course.

Excellent video, Josh and Eddy!

Tom, putting Humean views on causation aside (I wasn't fond of them anyway), the biggest problem with saying "things had to happen" is that it gives the modality the wrong scope. It sounds just like

Necessarily, x

where x is the thing that happens. But the proper scope of deterministic modality is

Necessarily ( (P & L) -> x)

where P is a description of the past and L is the laws of nature. If we had

Necessarily (P & L)

then we could infer Necessarily x; but that premise is controversial at least. I think it's just false. Without it, we still have

P & L

from which we can infer


E.g. in the deterministic world, Pete *will* order french fries for lunch (or whatever that scenario in the surveys said). But we don't have that he must.

To complicate matters, we sometimes use "must" epistemically, in cases where we have decisively concluded something. A super-scientist in the deterministic world might decisively conclude that Pete will have french fries. "Given this evidence, it must be that Pete will have fries!" But that conclusion doesn't bind Pete. Pete could declare "I will substitute cole slaw for the fries," and Pete would be correct, for that's exactly what the waiter would then bring. (As David Velleman has made so clear in the paper "Epistemic Freedom" and elsewhere.)


What you’re getting at I think is that one can’t say x had to happen tout court since the past and laws might have been otherwise. But one *can* say that x had to happen given the past and laws as they obtained in an actual situation. So it seems to me a fair description of determinism is that in actual situations we couldn’t have done otherwise since we don’t have the capacity to transcend or step outside of causal necessitation. In my experience, some folks believe we have this capacity, although (using Eddy’s terminology) they are very theory-lite on how it's supposed to work.

Here’s a nice declaration of freedom from causality gleaned from a conversation at the Facebook naturalism group:

“We have evolved consciousness which gives us the ability to make completely uncaused choices…Though we are tethered to our experiences and our brains, our reasons for our choices are never the causes of our actions. Our choices and actions happen independently of our reasons, i.e., our reasons do not compel us to act in any way. Nothing compels our choices. We're always free going forward. In every moment choice is open to us. That is what consciousness has enabled - free will among living beings.”


To me the most natural interpretation of "x had to happen given the past and laws as they obtained" is Nec ( (P&L) -> x), which of course is fine by me. On the other hand, the second most natural interpretation is "given the evidence (P&L), I conclude Nec(x)," which is not fine. So the statement without further elaboration makes me a wee bit nervous. And I definitely jump ship before "in actual situations we couldn’t have done otherwise."

I'm an old fashioned compatibilist like Kadri Vivhelin. I think we could have done otherwise, even if your favorite scientific determinism turned out to be true. I don't think determinism implies that the past is master of an enslaved present and future. As Carl Hoefer writes in the SEP article on Causal Determinism,

"there is no support in physics for the idea that the past is “fixed” in some way that the present and future are not, or that it has some ontological power to constrain our actions that the present and future do not have. It is not hard to uncover the reasons why we naturally do tend to think of the past as special, and assume that both physical causation and physical explanation work only in the past present/future direction (see the entry on thermodynamic asymmetry in time). But these pragmatic matters have nothing to do with fundamental determinism. If we shake loose from the tendency to see the past as special, when it comes to the relationships of determinism, it may prove possible to think of a deterministic world as one in which each part bears a determining—or partial-determining—relation to other parts, but in which no particular part (i.e., region of space-time) has a special, stronger determining role than any other. Hoefer (2002) uses these considerations to argue in a novel way for the compatiblity of determinism with human free agency."

Or as I would put it (I haven't read Hoefer 2002 yet; I need to remedy that), we can go ahead and presuppose the complicity of the past in our deliberations. Our options are really options because only our choice can decide them. The past events, in the context of the laws, can inform about what our action will be, but only insofar as the past events both imply *and are logically implied by* the choice we actually make.

Your Facebook interlocutors are working with a primitive, scientifically dubious conception of causation, I'd say.


You take Nec((P&L) -> x) to mean "x had to happen given the past and laws as they obtained" but also say that in an actual situation we might have acted otherwise, given the past and laws that obtained. This seems contradictory to me.

Re Hoefer's view, I'm wondering if there's enough consensus about determinism within the philo-scientific community to describe it consistently for the folk in surveys. Is there a canonical, scientifically respectable conception of causation that can generate a single, unambiguous and agreed-upon ordinary language description of determinism? I get the impression there isn't. In which case we can't expect x-phi to produce valid findings about people's intuitions about freedom and responsibility by presenting them with scenarios involving determinism.

Hi Tom, I agree with much of what you say here about the need for presenting determinism in a way people can understand if our goal is to see whether they find determinism to be incompatible with FW or MR. I also agree that we need to do more work to figure out how people understand the sorts of abilities and alternatives they think are required for FW and MR and whether those abilities, 'theory-lite' as they are, are consistent with determinism (I'm working on this). I've tried roughly four variations of determinism in my experimental work, none of which is perfect for capturing the PvI definition that most of us in the debate claim we are considering (I say 'claim' because I'm not always sure we really understand this modal definition--do we really understand modality?--and I'm pretty sure we sometimes are sneaking in more than his definition entails, especially in regards to causation, a morass into which PvI claims he will not set foot).

Two of these "formulations for the folk" my coauthors and I have used include the modal terms "had to" or "must" (Nichols and Knobe's Universe A, which I think has problematic fatalistic language, and my group's rollback universe). Two have not (the Laplacean computer that perfectly predicts the future and the 'genes and upbringing' cause everything case that Steve Morris developed). And a new one uses perfect prediction based on neural activity. All of these use causal language (past states completely causing later states), except the Laplacean one. Some mention laws of nature. I don't think responses vary much among these cases, except to the extent bypassing is primed (and/or whether they use concrete decisions or reductionistic language), but others disagree with me.

I also agree with much of what Paul says, and I think the compatibilist must give some account (not an analysis!) of how humans are able to do otherwise even if determinism were true (I like Vihvelin's account). As I've said on this blog before, I think such an account need not get any more metaphysical than an account of how other complex contingent events could have happened otherwise.

Finally, let me point out that it is the incompatibilist who is making a positive claim that free will is impossible if some thesis DET is true. PvI is quite clear about defining his terms, including DET, though he then pretends that terms like 'having a choice' or 'being up to' can be plugged into his technical arguments without begging any questions (or at least without drawing on ordinary intuitions and usage). If that thesis DET cannot be clearly presented, then it is difficult to know how to establish incompatibilism. If DET cannot be presented to non-specialists in a way they can understand, it is impossible to know whether incompatibilism is intuitive. (I like PF Strawson's claim that he is in the camp that does not understand what determinism is supposed to mean.)

My own view is that the sort of determinism most interesting (and historically relevant) for debates about free will is not the modal definition, but the thesis that current events have prior sufficient causes (in accord with laws). And my view is that most people find that sort of determinism threatening mostly when they take it to imply a sort of competition between earlier causes and the causes within themselves that they think are relevant for free and responsible action. Compatibilists have to help them see that this causal competition is illusory.

Even your Facebook libertarian might come to see this light if s/he came to understand and internalize a (yet to be discovered) naturalistic theory of consciousness, one that illuminated how our conscious considerations of our own reasons and of our envisioned choices and the various future outcomes they would cause are themselves a very complex part of a very complex web of causes, indeed a part that makes it true that "our reasons do not compel us"--indeed, nothing *compels* our choices--and yet our choices are not untethered or causally distinct from the rest of the natural world.

We are an integral part of the stream, and that truth gets obscured by presentations of DET that lead us to think that we are distinct from the stream and hence pushed along by it (an image made more plausible by our current ignorance of how our conscious minds really are part of the natural stream).

In the new Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the asteroid hitting earth, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, as exemplifying the radical *contingency* of the universe. Did he thereby suggest that our universe is not deterministic? Did his viewers simply assume that he meant to imply that the universe is not deterministic? After all, it would be prejudicial NOT to present "determinism as the idea that things had to happen the way they did." And contingent events simply did NOT *have to happen* the way they did.

You get the point, I presume. On my view, complex contingent events are possible in deterministic universes. Human choices are complex contingent events.

As some know, I teach a 101 based on the free will issue, and I have the attention of students (such as it is) for an entire semester. The number of students I've had collectively in the class must number around 2000 (conservatively). One issue I have hammered away on for over 20 years is the distinction between logical and actual-world metaphysical possibility. Just because something is conceivable as logically possible does not entail that the world allows it as really possible. I use the example of leaving the classroom. We can all conceive of turning left or right before the fact (pure logical possibility), and that we would have turned the opposite direction if we had decided otherwise after the fact (modally). But one real question is whether in the actual world we were caused to do what we do, or not, and that limits the relevance of the logically possible and at least questions the relevance of the post-act counterfactual in deterministic scenarios. This distinction at least shows students that whether they are causally determined to do what they actually do is a big issue about potential freedom here , and is quite apart from what they can conceive prior to or even after what they've done.

At the final I ask a question about why confusion of logical possibilities with actual possibilities that the world allows might tend to contribute to belief in incompatibilism. Most of my students still cannot give a coherent explanation of this even after weeks of repeated discussion about these different senses of possibility. My spit-ball estimate over the years is that far less than 20% of students get the point. So--I wonder how such crucially subtle distinctions can be accurately canvassed by X-PHI surveys. FWIW.


OK you've persuaded me to reverse the order of naturalness for interpreting "x had to happen given the past and laws as they obtained." The most natural interpretation is the tout court one. I do think the other, mere necessity-of-the-conditional interpretation is still a possible reading. Like many plain English modal sentences, it's ambiguous.

As far as a definition of determinism, I think the PvI definition is a matter of consensus. Hoefer's SEP definition is quite similar. It's only when you consider individual deterministic theories, all of which meet the definition, that interesting variations appear. (E.g. regarding the fixity of the past.) For surveys, why not try several different options? Within- or between-subject design, as you see fit. For example give them the Hoefer quote I just gave you, minus the last sentence and some philosophy jargon, and see what they make of it. As an alternate version give them something that asserts the fixity of the past and a unidirectional conception of causation.

Hey guys, I'm traveling right now and have very spotty internet access for the next week. Maybe it would be better to continue this (really good) discussion on one of your threads? I'm worried that I won't have a chance to approve the comments in a timely manner.

Correction to my previous post: Instead of "the most natural interpretation is the tout court one" I should have said "the one that leads to the tout court conclusion." I.e., the most natural reading is (P & L) -> Nec(x), which then leads to Nec(x) by modus ponens.

The comments to this entry are closed.