The Many Philosophical Positions on the Free Will Problem

Just as there are a large number of conflicting interpretations of quantum mechanics (which we will examine carefully in future lectures), there is an equally large number of positions on the problem of free will defended by modern academic philosophers.

Since their positions are in fundamental disagreement with one another, they cannot possibly all be correct. Perhaps they should just be seen as staking out niches in the continuing verbal jousting that is analytic language philosophy, just a variety of concepts for their claims to teach “clear conceptual analysis”? 

The free will section of the website has links to more than one hundred web pages describing the concepts in the free will debates. and there is a massively hyperlinked glossary that relates the jargon terms to one another.

See and

Finally, I have created a taxonomy of these several positions on free will…

Determinism is the position that every event is caused, the inevitable and necessary consequence of antecedent events, in a chain of events with just one possible future.

Hard” and “soft” determinism are terms invented by William James, who lamented the fact that some determinists were co-opting the term freedom for themselves. He called them “soft” determinists, because, abhoring harsh words like fatality, necessity, and even predetermination, they say determinism’s “real name is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom.”

Hard” determinists deny the existence of free will. “Soft” determinists co-opt the term.

Compatibilism is the most common name used today for James’ category of soft determinism. For compatibilists, free will is compatible with determinism.

Semicompatibilists are agnostic about free will and determinism, but claim that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Narrow incompatibilism is a similar concept.

Hard incompatibilists think both free will and moral responsibility are not compatible with determinism (they mean pre-determinism).

Illusionists are hard incompatibilists, who say that free will is an illusion. They usually deny moral responsibility, but some say we can preserve responsibility by maintaining the illusion.

Impossibilists are also hard incompatibilists. They say moral responsibility is impossible.

Incompatibilism is the idea that free will and determinism are incompatible. Incompatibilists include both hard determinists and libertarians. Incompatibilists include both hard determinists and libertarians (both yellow in the taxonomy). This confuses the debate by analytic language philosophers – who are normally committed to clear and unambiguous concepts – and adds difficulties for students of philosophy.

Soft incompatibilists says that free will is incompatible with pre-determinism, and that pre-determinism is not true. Using “soft” is preferable to the loose usage of the term “incompatibilist” to describe a libertarian, since “incompatibilist” is ambiguous and also used for determinists, the “hard” incompatibilists.

Source and Leeway Incompatibilism locate indeterminism in the Actual Sequence or Alternative Sequences. The first in each pair breaks the causal chain in the actual sequence, the last pair provide alternative possibilities in alternative sequences.

Indeterminism is the position that there are random (chance) events in a world of possible futures. The irreducible indeterminism is quantum indeterminacy.

Libertarians believe that indeterminism makes free will possible. Note that there many philosophers who admit indeterminism may be true but that it does not really explain free will (“hard” indeterminists?). See the standard argument against free will – If our actions are determined, we are not free. If they are random, we are not responsible for them. So indeterminism is not enough. We need a limited indeterminism in the first stage and also “adequate determinism” in the second stage of a two-stage model.

Agent-causal indeterminists are libertarians who think that agents have originating causes for their actions that are not events. Actions do not depend on any prior causes. Some call this “metaphysical” freedom.

Non-causal indeterminists simply deny any causes whatsoever for libertarian free will.

Event-causal indeterminists generally accept the view that random events (most likely quantum mechanical events) occur in the world. Whether in the physical world, in the biological world (where they are a key driver of genetic mutations), or in the mind, randomness and uncaused events are real. They introduce the possibility of accidents, novelty, and human creativity.

Soft Causality is the idea that most events are adequately determined by normal causes, but that some events are not precisely predictable from prior events, because there are occasional quantum events that start new causal chains with unpredictable futures. These events are said to be causa sui.

Soft Libertarians accept some indeterminism in the Actual Sequence. They are source incompatibilists.

While microscopic quantum events are powerful enough to deny strict determinism, the magnitude of these events is generally so small, especially for large macroscopic objects, that the world is still overwhelmingly deterministic. We call this “adequate determinism.”

Although random quantum mechanical events break the strictly deterministic causal chain, which has just one possible future, random events are probable causes for later events. They start new causal chains with unpredictable futures. They are said to be causa sui. They need not be the direct cause of human actions, which would make the actions random, but simply provide alternative possibilities for willed actions.

On close examination we find that most of these positions are attempting to defend moral responsibility. They do not see that the question of moral responsibility is a cultural and normative problem. It should be kept separate from the question of human freedom from deterministic laws of nature. This is a scientific question and few philosophers understand science, especially quantum mechanics.

See chapter 20 of my Free Will book on the Separability of Free Will and Moral Responsibility.


Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy

My first philosophy book was published today (my 75th birthday). Here is the press release material.

Free Will

A sourcebook/textbook on the problem of free will and determinism. Contains a history of the free will problem, a taxonomy of current free will positions, the standard argument against free will, the physics, biology, and neuroscience of free will, the most plausible and practical solution of the problem, and reviews of the work of the leading determinist Ted Honderich, the leading libertarian Robert Kane, the well-known compatibilist Daniel Dennett, and the determinism-agnostic Alfred Mele.

‘Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy’ | Bob Doyle | Paperback 9780983580201 |
480 pages, b&w, 40 figures, 15 sidebars, glossary, bibliography, index. $29.95

Notes to Editors: This book is based on the Freedom section of the Information Philosopher website. It will be available in a number of digital eBook editions (Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad/iPhone, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Sony Reader). It will also be available online as a Google Book (PDF).

The eBook editions contain a digital publishing innovation. Amazon normally recommends eliminating the index because eBook pages are repaginated depending on font size. But an index is vital for a textbook. And an index needs page numbers. Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy may be the first eBook with page numbers anchored in the text.

Page numbers are visible in the text of Free Will eBook editions, for easy citations. The eBooks also have fully interactive tables of contents (Amazon best navigation) as well as including the print edition’s ToC.

The print edition will be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, in bookstores, and especially university bookstores in the US and UK. Print-on-demand versions will be available via the Espresso Book Machines network worldwide.

Notes to Distributors and Booksellers: The book is available for wholesale purchase at standard trade discount (returnable) from Ingram Lightning Source in the US, UK, and Australia:

About the Author: Bob Doyle is a scientist (Ph.D. in Astrophysics, Harvard, 1968), an inventor with multiple patents (Parker Brothers’ Merlin, 1978), an entrepreneur (Super8 Sound, 1973; MicroCosmos, 1974; iXO, 1982), a software developer (MacPublisher for Macintosh, 1984), a journalist (NewMedia, EContent), a web innovator (he helped produce the first podcast in 2003), and a philosopher whose influential website ( has highly ranked pages on over 200 philosophers and scientists.
He is currently an Associate in the Harvard University Department of Astronomy faculty.

Doyle wrote MacPublisher, the first desktop publishing program, in 1984 as a tool to help him write this book, but it had to wait for twenty-seven years to get finished. Doyle used the Adobe InDesign desktop publishing program (with Illustrator and Photoshop for the figures) to design and produce the book himself.

About the book:

John Searle called it a scandal that after all the centuries of writing about free will, we have not made much progress. According to Doyle, a more serious scandal today is that academic philosophers are convincing many young students that they are deterministic biological machines with only a “compatibilist free will.”

Doyle recounts the many different forms of determinism that have been used over the centuries to deny human freedom and responsibility. To end the scandal, philosophers need to teach a two-stage model of free will and creativity, one that Doyle finds in the work of a dozen philosophers and scientists going back to William James’ talk to Harvard Divinity School students in 1884.

The Doyle/James two-stage model reconciles free will with indeterminism, just as David Hume reconciled freedom of action with determinism (and R.E.Hobart reconciled free will with determination).

The free-will model is actually triply compatible; compatible with determinism (of the Hume and especially Hobart kind), compatible with indeterminism (since William James), and compatible with biological evolution.

Doyle calls this “comprehensive compatibilism,” to encourage compatibilists who won’t have to change their self-descriptions, but just broaden their definition of compatibilism to include his limited indeterminism and the evolutionary connection with neurobiology.

The two-stage model emerges naturally as a consequence of evolution. It is not a metaphysical free will, a mystery or gift of God. It is rather a biophysical free will that evolved by natural selection from lower animals, which Martin Heisenberg has shown have a two-stage “behavioral freedom.” They “originate” actions that are not pre-determined by the laws of nature and conditions immediately before their “decisions.”

The first “free” stage is indeterministic. In humans the second “will” stage is normally adequately determined, by reasons and motives, desires and feelings, by character and values. But an agent can also “flip a coin” between indifferent alternatives, so the two-stage model also supports undetermined liberties at the moment of choice. Undetermined liberties are a subset of all possible actions that are consistent with character and values, etc.

Our thoughts are free. Our actions are willed.

Reading Michael Frede

Michael Frede argued that the modern notion of a free will was not present in the earliest Greek thinkers, but developed late in Stoicism, especially with Epictetus, and was refined by Augustine to become the modern notion.

Frede thus appears to agree with Susanne Bobzien, but it depends on the definition of “free will” and the “free will problem” that they are using.

Frede claims to have no preconception of free will. He hopes that it will emerge from a careful reading of the ancient works. In his 2011 book, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, he says,

“Now, though I do not presuppose a specific notion of a free will, let alone want to endorse or advocate some specific notion of it, I do rely on something like a general idea of a free will, something like a schema which any specific notion of a free will or any particular version of the notion of a free will, at least in antiquity, will fit into. I do not arrive at this general idea or schema on the basis of some philosophical view as to what any notion of a free will has to look like but rather with the benefit of historical hindsight. That is to say, I have looked at the relevant ancient texts and have abstracted this schema from those texts which explicitly talk of a will, the freedom of the will, or a free will. In having such a schema, we shall at least have a general idea of what we are looking for when we investigate the origins of the notion of a free will but without having to commit ourselves to any particular view, ancient or modern, as to what a free will really is.” (pp.6-7)

Frede finds in the Stoics a notion of will that is distinguished from the Platonic or Aristotelian notions by denying any role for a nonrational element in the mind or soul.

“With Stoicism, then, we get for the first time a notion of the will as an ability of the mind or of reason to make choices and decisions. This ability, though, which we all share, in the case of each of us is formed and developed in different ways. How it develops is crucially a matter of the effort and care with which we ourselves develop this ability, which we also might neglect to do. The will thus formed and developed accounts for the different choices and decisions different human beings make. As we have seen, the precise form in which the Stoics conceive of the will depends on their denial of a nonrational part or parts of the soul. Hence in this specific form the notion of a will was unacceptable to Platonists and to Aristotelians, who continued to insist on a nonrational part of the soul.”

Reading J. L. Austin

John L. Austin was an analytic philosopher who favored the analysis of ordinary language, rather than the creation of new technical philosophical terms, such as the “logical atoms” of Bertrand Russell and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein. He opposed logical positivistic philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, who believed that all sentences had a truth value. For Austin, some sentences were not passive statements about facts, but performative utterances, such as “I do” in a wedding ceremony. He called them “speech-acts.”

Austin analyzed the ordinary meaning of “I can,” and argued that there might be an implicit “if” lurking in the background of such statements. “Are cans constitutionally iffy?,” he asked in his famous 1956 essay “Ifs and Cans.”

In his Ethics, G. E. Moore had made free will compatible with determinism by analyzing the phrase “could have done otherwise” as meaning, “could have done otherwise, if I had chosen to do otherwise”
Austin’s Putt
Austin extends “I can” to mean “I can, if I try.” He separates the physical ability from the desire or intention to perform an action. His celebrated example is (footnote 9 in “Ifs and Cans”) an attempt to “hole” a putt. He normally has the ability to putt successfully. He wants (or tries or intends) to hole a putt. But in one case, his physical ability (or perhaps physical conditions beyond his control) prevent him from making the putt.

Austin then asks, could I have done otherwise? Could I have made the putt, in exactly the same physical conditions? “Further experiments,” he says, “may confirm my belief that I could have done it although I did not.” This is a sound empirical point of view. If Austin tries to hole the putt several times – on the same green, the same “lie” of the ball, the same distance to the hole, etc. – and finds that he does succeed, say, 95% of the time, it is reasonable to say that he could have, indeed normally would have, holed the putt. Physical reality often gives us only a statistical probability concerning what we “can” do.

In his work, Ethics, P.H.Nowell-Smith, who is also trying to come to grips with the implications of determinism, argues that “could have” means “would have, if.” But Austin argues that this cannot be the categorical statement Nowell-Smith makes of it, because there are so many other conditionals that might be part of the “if” clause – if he had the opportunity, if he had the ability, if he was lucky, etc.

Daniel Dennett on Austin’s Putt
In his 2003 book, Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett says that Austin’s Putt clarifies the mistaken fear that determinism reduces posibilities. Considering that Dennett is an actualist, who believes there is only one possible future, this bears close examination.

First, don’t miss the irony that Dennett is using “possible worlds” thinking, which makes the one world we are in only able to have one possible future, our actual world.

Dennett says

Now that we have a clearer understanding of possible worlds, we can expose three major confusions about possibility and causation that have bedeviled the quest for an account of free will. First is the fear that determinism reduces our possibilities. We can see why the claim seems to have merit by considering a famous example proposed many years ago by John Austin:

Consider the case where I miss a very short putt and kick myself because I could have holed it. It is not that I should have holed it if I had tried: I did try, and missed. It is not that I should have holed it if conditions had been different: that might of course be so, but I am talking about conditions as they precisely were, and asserting that I could have holed it. There is the rub. Nor does “I can hole it this time” mean that I shall hole it this time if I try or if anything else; for I may try and miss, and yet not be convinced that I could not have done it; indeed, further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time, although I did not. (Austin 1961, p. 166)

Austin didn’t hole the putt. Could he have, if determinism is true? The possible-worlds interpretation exposes the misstep in Austin’s thinking. First, suppose that determinism holds, and that Austin misses, and let H be the sentence “Austin holes the putt.” We now need to choose the set X of relevant possible worlds that we need to canvass to see whether he could have made it. Suppose X is chosen to be the set of physically possible worlds that are identical to the actual world at some time t0 prior to the putt. Since determinism says that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future, this set of worlds has just one member, the actual world, the world in which Austin misses. So, choosing set X in this way, we get the result that H does not hold for any world in X. So it was not possible, on this reading, for Austin to hole the putt.

To include adjacent worlds seems to add alternative possibilities?
Of course, this method of choosing X (call it the narrow method) is only one among many. Suppose we were to admit into X worlds that differ in a few imperceptibly microscopic ways from actuality at t0; we might well find that we’ve now included worlds in which Austin holes the putt, even when determinism obtains. This is, after all, what recent work on chaos has shown: Many phenomena of interest to us can change radically if one minutely alters the initial conditions. So the question is: When people contend that events are possible, are they really thinking in terms of the narrow method?

Suppose that Austin is an utterly incompetent golfer, and his partner in today’s foursome is inclined to deny that he could have made the putt. If we let X range too widely, we may include worlds in which Austin, thanks to years of expensive lessons, winds up a championship player who holes the putt easily. That is not what Austin is claiming, presumably. Austin seems to endorse the narrow method of choosing X when he insists that he is “talking about conditions as they precisely were.” Yet in the next sentence he seems to rescind this endorsement, observing that “further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time, although I did not.” What further experiments might indeed confirm Austin’s belief that he could have done it? Experiments on the putting green? Would his belief be shored up by his setting up and sinking near-duplicates of that short putt ten times in a row? If this is the sort of experiment he has in mind, then he is not as interested as he claims he is in conditions as they precisely were. To see this, suppose instead that Austin’s “further experiments” consisted in taking out a box of matches and lighting ten in a row. “See,” he says, “I could have made that very putt.” We would rightly object that his experiments had absolutely no bearing on his claim. Sinking ten short putts would have no more bearing on his claim, understood in the narrow sense as a claim about “conditions as they precisely were.” We suggest that Austin would be content to consider “Austin holes the putt” possible if, in situations very similar to the actual occasion in question, he holes the putt. We think that this is what he meant, and that he would be right to think about his putt this way. This is the familiar, reasonable, useful way to conduct “further experiments” whenever we are interested in understanding the causation involved in a phenomenon of interest. We vary the initial conditions slightly (and often systematically) to see what changes and what stays the same. This is the way to gather useful information from the world to guide our further campaigns of avoidance and enhancement.

Curiously, this very point was made, at least obliquely, by G. E. Moore in the work Austin was criticizing in the passage quoted. Moore’s examples were simple: Cats can climb trees and dogs can’t, and a steamship that is now traveling at 25 knots can, of course, also steam at 20 knots (but not, of course, in precisely the circumstances it is now in, with the engine set at Full Speed Ahead). The sense of “can” invoked in these uncontroversial claims, the sense called “can (general)” by Honoré (1964) in an important but neglected article, is one that requires us to look not at “conditions as they precisely were” but at minor variations on those conditions.

So Austin equivocates when he discusses possibilities. In truth, the narrow method of choosing X does not have the significance that he and many others imagine. From this it follows that the truth or falsity of determinism should not affect our belief that certain unrealized events were nevertheless “possible,” in an important everyday sense of the word. We can bolster this last claim by paying a visit to a narrow domain in which we know with certainty that determinism reigns: the realm of chess-playing computer programs.
(Freedom Evolves, pp. 75-77)

See J.L.Austin on I-Phi

Reading Susanne Bobzien

Susanne Bobzien is Professor of Philosophy at Yale specializing in the problem of determinism and freedom, especially among Hellenistic and later ancient philosophers.

Her 1998 book Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy is a detailed analysis of arguments, especially those of Chrysippus, for the compatibilism of freedom with causal determinism.

In her book and a 1998 article in Phronesis (Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 133-175), Bobzien identified several variations on the theme of human freedom that were important in antiquity. Three of them are indeterminist freedoms, by which she means the decision is partly or wholly a matter of chance, and does not involve the character and values of the agent. (These are “extreme” libertarian positions, but are held today by Robert Kane, Mark Balaguer, and others):

1) freedom to do otherwise: I am free to do otherwise if, being the same agent, with the same desires and beliefs, and being in the same circumstances, it is possible for me to do or not to do something in the sense that it is not fully causally determined whether or not I do it.

2) freedom of decision: a subtype of freedom to do otherwise. I am free in my decision, if being the same agent, with the same desires and beliefs, and being in the same circumstances, it is possible for me to decide between alternative courses of action in the sense that it is not fully causally determined which way I decide. 1) differs from 2) in that it leaves it undecided in which way it is possible for the agent to do or not to do something.

3) freedom of the will: a subtype of freedom of decision. I act from free will, if I am in the possession of a will, i.e. a specific part or faculty of the soul by means of which I can decide between alternative courses of actions independently of my desires and beliefs [this is “extreme”], in the sense that it is not fully causally determined in which way I decide. 2) differs from 3) in that the latter postulates a specific causally independent faculty or part of the soul which functions as a “decision making faculty.”
(Phronesis, p.133)

Bobzien contrasts these radical libertarianisms with what she calls “un-predeterminist” freedom:

4) un-predeterminist freedom: I have un-predeterminist freedom of action/choice if there are no causes prior to my action/choice which determine whether or not I perform/choose a certain course of action, but in the same circumstances, if I have the same desires and beliefs, I would always do/choose the same thing. Un-predeterminist freedom guarantees the agents’ autonomy in the sense that nothing except the agents themselves is causally responsible for whether they act, or for which way they decide. Un-predeterminist freedom requires a theory of causation that is not (just) a theory of event-causation (i.e. a theory which considers both causes and effects as events). For instance, un-predeterminist freedom would work with a concept of causality which considers things or objects (material or immaterial) as causes, and events, movements or changes as effects. Such a conception of causation is common in antiquity.
(Phronesis, p.133)

In Bobzien’s “un-predeterminist” freedom, there is nothing that causally determines the agent’s action, but the agent will always make the same decision in exactly the same circumstances, because the decision is completely consistent with the agent’s desires and beliefs (and character and values).

Bobzien’s idea of un-predeterminist freedom is a good fit with two-stage models of free will.

Finally, Bobzien lists three compatibilist freedoms, negative “freedoms from” rather than positive “freedoms to…”

5) freedom from force and compulsion: I am free in my actions/choices in this sense, if I am not externally or internally forced or compelled when I act/choose. This does not preclude that my actions/choices may be fully causally determined by extemal and internal factors.

6) freedom from determination by external causal factors: agents are free from external causal factors in their actions/choices if the same external situation or circumstances will not necessarily always elicit the same (re-)action or choice of different agents, or of the same agent but with different desires or beliefs.

7) freedom from determination by (external and) certain internal causal factors: I am in my actions/choices free from certain intemal factors (e.g. my desires), if having the same such internal factors will not necessarily always elicit in me the same action/choice.
(Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, p.278)

In Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (2000), Bobzien challenged Pamela Huby’s 1967 assertion that Epicurus discovered the “free will problem.”

In 1967 Epicurus was credited with the discovery of the problem of free will and determinism. Among the contestants were Aristotle and the early Stoics.
Furley merely de-emphasized the direct involvement of the random swerve in volition, as had Bailey before him.
Epicurus emerged victorious, because — so the argument went — Aristotle did not yet have the problem, and the Stoics inherited it from Epicurus. In the same year David Furley published his essay ‘Aristotle and Epicurus on Voluntary Action’, in which he argued that Epicurus’ problem was not the free will problem. In the thirty-odd years since then, a lot has been published about Epicurus on freedom and determinism.

But it has only rarely been questioned whether Epicurus, in one way or another, found himself face to face with some version of the free will problem. In this paper I intend to take up the case for those who have questioned the point, combining a fresh perspective on the debate with a selection of new arguments and a detailed textual analysis of the relevant passages. Let me begin with a brief sketch of the problem of freedom and determinism which Epicurus is widely taken to have been concerned with.

The determinism Epicurus defends himself against is usually understood as causal determinism: every event is fully determined in all its details by preceding causes. These causes are commonly pictured as forming an uninterrupted chain or network, reaching back infinitely into the past, and as governed by an all-embracing set of laws of nature, or as manifestations of such a set of laws of nature.

Freedom to do otherwise, freedom of decision, and extreme freedom of the will Bobzien now labels “two-sided” freedom
On the side of freedom, Epicurus is generally understood to have been concerned with freedom of decision (the freedom to decide whether or not to do some action) or freedom of choice (the freedom to choose between doing and not doing some action) or freedom of the will (where the freedom to will to do something entails the freedom to will not to do it, and vice versa; I call this two-sided freedom of the will). Epicurus is taken to have introduced an indeterminist conception of free decision or free choice or two-sided free will: agents are free in this sense only if they are causally undetermined (or not fully causally determined) in their decision whether or not to act or their choice between alternative courses of action; undetermined, that is, by external and internal causal factors alike. There is assumed to be a gap in the causal chain immediately before, or simultaneously with, the decision or choice, a gap which allows the coming into being of a spontaneous motion.
Epicurus did not make actions directly the result of random atomic swerves, and he did think volitions were “up to us.”
In this way every human decision or choice is directly linked with causal indeterminism. The assumption of such indeterminist free decision, free choice, or two-sided free will does not presuppose that one specifies an independent mental faculty, like e.g. a will, and indeed it is not usually assumed that Epicurus’ theory involved such a faculty.

The ‘free will problem’ that Epicurus is assumed to have faced is then roughly as follows: If determinism is true, every decision or choice of an agent between alternative courses of actions is fully determined by preceding causes, and forms part of an uninterrupted causal chain. On the other hand, if an agent has (two-sided) freedom of the will, it seems that the agent’s decision or choice must not be fully determined by preceding causes. Hence, it appears, determinism and freedom of the will (freedom of decision, freedom of choice) are incompatible.

I do not believe that Epicurus ever considered a problem along the lines of the one just described. In particular, I am sceptical about the assumption that he shared in a conception of free decision or free choice akin to the one I have sketched. (I also have my doubts that he ever conceived of a determinism characterized by a comprehensive set of laws of nature; but this is a point I only mention in passing.) To avoid misunderstandings, I should stress that I do believe that Epicurus was an indeterminist of sorts — only that he did not advocate indeterminist free decision or indeterminist free choice.

Bobzien is of course right that Epicurus did not think that our decisions were made at random with no regard for our character and values, or for our feelings and desires. This is a straw argument put up by critics of Epicurean philosophy, notably the Stoic Chryssipus and the Academic Skeptic Cicero.

Epicurus explicitly said human actions are caused by an autonomous agency, a third cause beyond chance and necessity.

But Bobzien is wrong to suggest that Epicurus did not see a problem between human freedom and the causal determinism of his fellow atomist Democritus, and that Epicurus’ atomic swerve was not his proposed solution to that “free will problem (viz, by breaking the causal chain).” Bobzien recognizes that her claim depends on the definiton of free will when she notes that

Whether Epicurus discussed free will depends on what one means by ‘free will’. For example, if one intends ‘free will’ to render Lucretius “libera voluntas,” and to mean whatever element of Epicurus’ doctrine Lucretius meant to capture by this phrase, then Epicurus evidently was concerned with free will. My concern is only to show that he did not discuss a problem of free will that involves a conception of freedom of decision or choice as adumbrated in the main text. [namely, “extreme” libertarianism in which chance is the direct cause of action.]

See our account of free will in antiquity for more details and which ancient philosophers were first to take positions as determinist, libertarian, and compatibilist in antiquity.

Reading Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain was a Scottish philosopher who influenced the Americans Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Their meetings of the short-lived “Metaphysical Club” in the early 1860’s often included discussions of Bain’s work. Peirce thought the core idea of his new philosophy of pragmatism came from Bain’s definition of a belief as “that upon which a man is prepared to act.”

William James gave “The Will to Believe” agential force in his own version of pragmatism. The “difference between the objects of will and belief is entirely immaterial, as far as the relation of the mind to them goes.” (Principles, vol.2, p.320) “When a thing is such as to make us act on it, then we believe it, according to Bain,” said James (p.322).

In his 1859 book Emotions and the Will, Bain said

It remains to consider the line of demarcation between belief and mere conceptions involving no belief – there being instances where the one seems to shade into the other. It seems to me impossible to draw this line without referring to action, as the only test, and the essential import of the state of conviction even in cases the farthest removed in appearance from any actions of ours, there is no other criterion.
(Emotions and the Will, ch. XI, Liberty and Necessity, sect. 22, p.595)

Bain on Free Will
Bain followed John Locke and considered it absurd to describe the will as “free.” His psychological theory marked the beginning of psychophysical parallelism, and it denied a purely physical or materialist explanation of mind. Knowledge and all mental events flowed from the sensations. So the physical body could generate spontaneous movements, but they could be known to a Laplacian intelligence.

Spontaneity, Self determination. – These names are introduced into the discussion of the will, as aides to the theory of liberty, which they are supposed to elucidate and unfold. That there is such a thing as ’spontaneity,’ in the action of voluntary agents has been seen in the foregoing pages. The spontaneous beginnings of movement are a result of the physical mechanism under the stimulus of nutrition… There is nothing in all this that either takes human actions out of the sweep of law, or renders liberty and necessity appropriate terms of description… The physical, or nutritive, stimulus is a fact of our Constitution, counting at each moment for a certain amount, according to the bodily condition; and if anyone knew exactly the condition of a man or animal in this respect, a correct allowance might be made in the computation of present motives.
(Emotions and the Will, ch. XI, Liberty and Necessity, sect. 7, p.552)

Bain thought that the mind also could generate “outgoing” thoughts and new associations at “random,” but it is likely that his idea of randomness was the prevalent 19th-century view that randomness and chance were just the result of human ignorance and our incapacity to make arbitrarily accurate measurements, following the views of Adolphe Quételet and Henry Thomas Buckle.

When Watt invented his ‘parallel motion’ for the steam engine, his intellect and observation were kept at work, going out in all directions for the change of some suitable combination rising to view; his sense of the precise thing to be done was the constant touchstone of every contrivance occurring to him, and all the successive suggestions were arrested, or repelled, as they came near to, or disagreed with, this touchstone. The attraction and repulsion were purely volitional effects; they were the continuance of the very same energy that, in his babyhood, made him keep his mouth to his mother’s breast widely felt hunger on appeased and withdraw it when satisfied…

No formal resolution of the mind, adopted after consideration or debate, no special intervention of the ‘ego,’ or the personality, is essential to this putting forth of the energy of retaining on the one hand, or repudiating on the other, what is felt to be clearly suitable, or clearly unsuitable, to the feelings or aims of the moment. The inventor sees the incongruity of a proposal, and forth with it vanishes from his view. There may be extraneous considerations happening to keep it up in spite of the volitional stroke of repudiation, but the genuine tendency of the mind is to withdraw all further consideration, on the mere motive of unsuitability; while some other scheme of an opposite nature is, by the same instinct, embraced and held fast.

In all these new constructions, be they mechanical, verbal, scientific, practical, or aesthetical, the outgoings of the mind are necessarily at random; the end alone is the thing that is clear to the view, and with that there is a perception of the fitness of every passing suggestion. The volitional energy keeps up the attention, or the active search, and the moment that anything in point rises before the mind, springs upon that like a wild beast on its prey. I might go through all the varieties of creative effort, detailed under the law of constructive association, but I should only have to repeat the same observation at every turn.
(Emotions and the Will, ch. IV, Control of Feeling and Thoughts, sect. 8, Constructive Association a Voluntary Process, p.413-4)

Among Bain’s many accomplishments was the founding of the influential philosophical journal, Mind, in 1876.

See Alexander Bain on I-Phi

Reading Philippa Foot

Philippa Foot was an Oxford-trained philosopher who argued for a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics as opposed to deontology, utilitarianism, or consequentialism in ethics.

Foot created the famous moral thought experiment known as the trolley problem.

In 1957 she wrote an article in The Philosophical Review entitled “Free Will As Involving Determinism.” Foot criticized arguments that free will requires determinism, and in particular the idea that one could not be held responsible for “chance” actions chosen for no particular reason.

Her article begins with the observation that determinism has become widely accepted as compatible with free will.

The idea that free will can be reconciled with the strictest determinism is now very widely accepted. To say that a man acted freely is, it is often suggested, to say that he was not constrained, or that he could have done otherwise if he had chosen, or something else of that kind; and since these things could be true even if his action was determined it seems that there could be room for free will even within a universe completely subject to causal laws. (The Philosophical Review, vol LXVI, (1957), p.439)

Foot’s estimate of the wide acceptance of determinism is correct, but hard to reconcile with quantum indeterminacy in modern physics, as Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out a few years later in her inaugural lecture at Cambridge.

It has taken the inventions of indeterministic physics to shake the rather common dogmatic conviction that determinism is a presupposition or perhaps a conclusion, of scientific knowledge. Not that that conviction has been very much shaken even so…I find deterministic assumptions more common now among people at large, and among philosophers, than when I was an undergraduate. (Causality and Determination, 1971, p.28)

Foot examines arguments by David Hume, R. E. Hobart (the pseudonym of Dickinson S. Miller, a student and later colleague of William James), P. H. Nowell-Smith, Gilbert Ryle, and A. J. Ayer.

Foot correctly doubted that the ordinary language meaning of saying our actions are “determined” by motives has the same meaning as strict physical determinism, which assumes a causal law that determines every event in the future of the universe. She cites Bertrand Russell’s view of causal determinism:

The law of universal causation . . . may be enunciated as follows:…given the state of the whole universe,…every previous and subsequent event can theoretically be determined.

Foot is also skeptical of the simple logical argument that everything happens either by chance or because it is causally determined. This is the standard argument against free will that makes indeterminism and determinism the two horns of a logical dilemma.

Foot notes that our normal use of “determined” does not imply universal determinism.

For instance, an action said to be determined by the desires of the man who does it is not necessarily an action for which there is supposed to be a sufficient condition. In saying that it is determined by his desires we may mean merely that he is doing something that he wants to do, or that he is doing it for the sake of something else that he wants. There is nothing in this to suggest determinism in Russell’s sense. (ibid, p.441)

And when we do something “by chance” it may not mean physically undetermined, and may not be used to deny responsibility.

It is not at all clear that when actions or choices are called “chance” or “accidental” this has anything to do with the absence of causes… Ayer says, “Either it is an accident that I choose to act as I do, or it is not.” The notion of choosing by accident to do something is on the face of it puzzling; for usually choosing to do something is opposed to doing it by accident. What does it mean to say that the choice itself was accidental? (p.449-50)

If I say that it was a matter of chance that I chose to do something,…I do not imply that there was no reason for my doing what I did, and I say nothing whatsoever about my choice being undetermined. If we use “chance” and “accident” as Ayer wants to use them, to signify the absence of causes, we shall have moved over to a totally different sense of the words, and “I chose it by chance” can no longer be used to disclaim responsibility. (p.450)

Foot does not see that the role of chance and indeterminism might simply be to provide “free” alternative possibilities for action, to be deliberated upon and used as causes or reasons behind motives of our “will” as we choose to act.

She also does not seem to know that Hobart’s 1934 article was entitled “Free Will As Involving Determination And Inconceivable Without It.” In her reference (note 5), she thinks Hobart’s article has the same title she is using – “Free Will As Involving Determinism”.

See Philippa Foot on I-Phi

Reading Elizabeth Anscombe

Elizabeth Anscombe was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and later served, with G. H. von Wright and Rush Rhees as the executor of his papers and as editor of his Philosophical Investigations.

Her Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1971 was entitled “Causality and Determination.” She explained that we had no empirical grounds for believing in a determinism that is logically necessary or even in the physical determinism that appears to be required by natural laws like Newton’s. Anscombe thus properly distinguishes between determinism and determination, which requires only adequate determinism. And she sees that a strict causal, logical, and necessitated determinism (really predeterminism), is an illusion.

The high success of Newton’s astronomy was in one way an intellectual disaster: it produced an illusion from which we tend still to suffer. This illusion was created by the circumstance that Newton’s mechanics had a good model in the solar system. For this gave the impression that we had here an ideal of scientific explanation; whereas the truth was, it was mere obligingness on the part of the solar system, by having had so peaceful a history in recorded time, to provide such a model. (p.20)

She asks…

Must a physicist be a ‘determinist’? That is, must he believe that the whole universe is a system such that, if its total states at t and t’ are thus and so, the laws of nature are such as then to allow only one possibility for its total state at any other time? No.

Anscombe is familiar with developments in quantum physics. She notes that Max Born dissociated causality from determinism. And she mentions Richard Feynman’s suggestion (following Arthur Holly Compton) of a Geiger counter firing that might be connected to a bomb “There would be no doubt of the cause of the explosion if the bomb did go off,” she says. So there can be causality without determinism. (p.24)

She notes that C. D. Broad, in his 1934 inaugural lecture, had considered indeterminism, but he had added that whatever happened without being determined was “accidental.”

He did not explain what he meant by being accidental; he must have meant more than not being necessary. He may have meant being uncaused; but, if I am right, not being determined does not imply not being caused. Indeed, I should explain indeterminism as the thesis that not all physical effects are necessitated by their causes. But if we think of Feynman’s bomb, we get some idea of what is meant by “accidental”. It was random: it ‘merely happened’ that the radioactive material emitted particles in such a way as to activate the Geiger counter enough to set off the bomb. Certainly the motion of the Geiger counter’s needle is caused; and the actual emission is caused too: it occurs because there is this mass of radioactive material here. (I have already indicated that, contrary to the opinion of Hume, there are many different sorts of causality.) But all the same the causation itself is, one could say, mere hap. It is difficult to explain this idea any further. (p.25)

Indeed it is. We wish that Anscombe had tried.

But she goes on to say Broad naively assumed that our actions were therefore randomly caused. Apparently aware that randomness as a cause of action had been criticized since antiquity, she calls Broad naive.

Broad used the idea to argue that indeterminism, if applied to human action, meant that human actions are ‘accidental’. Now he had a picture of choices as being determining causes, analogous to determining physical causes, and of choices in their turn being either determined or accidental. To regard a choice as such – i.e. any case of choice – as a predetermining causal event, now appears as a naif mistake in the philosophy of mind, though that is a story I cannot tell here.

Again, we could hope she would have told us more.
Anscombe recounts the severe criticism of scientists’ suggestions that indeterminism could account for human freedom.

It was natural that when physics went indeterministic, some thinkers should have seized on this indeterminism as being just what was wanted for defending the freedom of the will. They received severe criticism on two counts: one, that this ‘mere hap’ is the very last thing to be invoked as the physical correlate of ‘man’s ethical behaviour’; the other, that quantum laws predict statistics of events when situations are repeated; interference with these, by the will’s determining individual events which the laws of nature leave undetermined, would be as much a violation of natural law as would have been interference which falsified a deterministic mechanical law. (p.25)

Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers, that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be either so much gobbledegook, or to make the alleged freedom of action quite unreal. My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom. But certainly it is insufficient. The physically undetermined is not thereby ‘free’. For freedom at least involves the power of acting according to an idea, and no such thing is ascribed to whatever is the subject (what would be the relevant subject?) of unpredetermination in indeterministic physics. (p.26)

Nevertheless, Anscombe is surprised that indeterministic physics has had so little effect on the thinking of philosophers of mind, who remain mostly determinists.

It has taken the inventions of indeterministic physics to shake the rather common dogmatic conviction that determinism is a presupposition or perhaps a conclusion, of scientific knowledge. Not that that conviction has been very much shaken even so. Of course, the belief that the laws of nature are deterministic has been shaken. But I believe it has often been supposed that this makes little difference to the assumption of macroscopic determinism: as if undeterminedness were always encapsulated in systems whose internal workings could be described only by statistical laws, but where the total upshot, and in particular the outward effect, was as near as makes no difference always the same. What difference does it make, after all, that the scintillations, whereby my watch dial is luminous, follow only a statistical law – so long as, the gross manifest effect is sufficiently guaranteed by the statistical law? Feynman’s example of the bomb and Geiger counter smashes this conception; but as far as I can judge it takes time for the lesson to be learned. I find deterministic assumptions more common now among people at large, and among philosophers, than when I was an undergraduate. (p.28)

See Elizabeth Anscombe on I-Phi

Reading Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler’s work was always encyclopedic. He is perhaps best known as the editor of the Great Books of the Western World (1952, 52 volumes), and its companion A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas (1952, 2 volumes). Both of these are the work of a team of writers working with Adler.

But even the books written directly by Adler are encyclopedic in nature, especially his two-volume survey on freedom – The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Conceptions of Freedom (1958) and its sequel The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Controversies about Freedom (1961).

In The Idea of Freedom, vol.I, Adler classifies all freedoms into three categories:

The Circumstantial Freedom of Self-Realization
The Acquired Freedom of Self-Perfection
The Natural Freedom of Self-Determination

Self-realization is freedom from external coercion, political end economic freedom, etc.

The freedom we have identified as circumstantial is variously called “economic freedom,” “political freedom,” “civil liberty,” “individual freedom,” “the freedom of man in society,” “freedom in relation to the state,” and “external freedom.” It is sometimes referred to negatively as “freedom from coercion or restraint,” “freedom from restrictions,” or “freedom from law,” and sometimes positively as “freedom of action,” “freedom of spontaneity,” or “freedom under law.”
(The Idea of Freedom, vol I, p.127)

Freedom from these constraints is the kind of freedom worth having stressed by the classical compatibilists from Thomas Hobbes on.

Today most philosophers might include a large number of circumstantial internal constraints on freedom such as an agent’s mental disabilities, addictions, behavioral conditioning, both normal and coercive (indoctrination or brainwashing), and perhaps even factors like heredity and environment.

Self-perfection is the idea from Plato to Kant that we are only free when our decisions are for reasons and we are not slaves to our passions (making moral choices rather than satisfying desires).

This is the acquired or learned knowledge to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, true from false, etc. Adler also includes many theologically minded philosophers who argue that man is only free when following a divine moral law. Sinners, they say, do not have free will, which is odd because sinners are presumably responsible for evil in the world despite an omniscient and omnipotent God.

As signifying one of the three ways in which writers think that men possess freedom, the word “acquired” refers to that the possession of which depends upon a change or development in human beings whereby they have a state of mind, or character, or personality which differentiates them from other men.

Whatever word is used to designate this difference (whether it be “good,” “wise,” “virtuous,” “righteous,” “holy,” “healthy,” “sound,” “flexible,” etc.), the difference represents an improvement, or the attainment of a superior condition, as measured on whatever scale of values is posited by the particular writer.

Freedom, in other words, is thought to be possessed only in conjunction with a certain state of mind, character, or personality that marks one man as somehow “better” than another.
(The Idea of Freedom, vol I, p.135)

Self-determination covers the classic problem of free will. Are our actions “up to us,” could we have done otherwise, are there alternative possibilities, or is everything simply part of a great causal chain leading to a single possible future?

Most of Adler’s natural freedoms are compatibilisms. They include Hegel’s freedom of a stone falling according to Newton’s law of gravity.

Adler defines the natural freedom of self-determination as that which is not either circumstantial or acquired.

A freedom that is natural is one which is (i) inherent in all men, (ii) regardless of the circumstances under which they live and (iii) without regard to any state of mind or character which they may or may not acquire in the course of their lives.
(ibid., p.149)

In volume II, writtten a few years later, Adler revisits the idea of a natural freedom of self-determination, which explicitly includes alternative possibilities and the self as a cause so our actions are “up to us.” Note that the uncaused self decides from prior alternative possibilities.

We have employed the following descriptive formula to summarize the understanding of self-determination that is shared by authors who affirm man’s possession of such freedom. They regard it, we have said, as “a freedom which is possessed by all men, in virtue of a power inherent in human nature, whereby a man is able to change his own character creatively by deciding for himself what he shall do or shall become.”

We have further explained that “being able to change one’s own character creatively by deciding for one’s self what one shall do or shall become” expresses the topical agreement about self-determination only when at least two of the three following points are affirmed:

(i) that the decision is intrinsically unpredictable, i.e., given perfect knowledge of all relevant causes, the decision cannot be foreseen or predicted with certitude;

Adler may see a two-stage model, first alternative possibilities,
not causal factors,
then an act of will.
(ii) that the decision is not necessitated, i.e., the decision is always one of a number of alternative possible decisions any one of which it was simultaneously within the power of the self to cause, no matter what other antecedent or concurrent factors exercise a causal influence on the making of the decision;

(iii) that the decision flows from the causal initiative of the self, i.e., on the plane of natural or finite causes, the self is the uncaused cause of the decision it makes.

These three points, as we shall see, generate three distinct existential issues about man’s natural freedom of self-determination. Writers who deny (iii) that, on the plane of natural or finite causes, there are any uncaused causes deny, in consequence, the existence of a freedom the conception of which posits such causes. Writers who deny (ii) that an effect can be caused in a manner which does not necessitate it deny, in consequence, the existence of a freedom the conception of which attributes to the self the power of causing but not necessitating the decisions it makes. The existence of self-determination is also denied by writers who claim (i) that God’s omniscience excludes a freedom the conception of which involves the intrinsic unpredictability of decisions that are the product of man’s power of self-determination
(The Idea of Freedom, vol II, p.225)

In his over 1400 pages, Adler devotes only six pages to brief comments on quantum mechanical indeterminism 53 (v.1, p.461-466). Adler depends heavily on the thoughts of Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger, who along with major thinkers like Einstein, Louis de Broglie, and David Bohm, rejected indeterminism.

See Mortimer Adler on I-Phi

Reading Jacques Monod

Jacques Monod’s 1971 book Chance and Necessity was a landmark in the popular science literature for its unequivocal statement that the origin of life is purely a product of Chance.

…chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition — or the hope — that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised.
(Chance and Necessity, p. 112)

Monod correctly denies any teleological forces are needed to create life from inanimate matter, but he finds that teleonomic purposeful behavior is one of the fundamental characteristics of life, along with what he calls autonomous morphogenesis (life is “self-constructing”) and reproductive invariance (life is “self-replicating”).

Information philosophy agrees that with the emergence of life, information structures with purposes entered the universe.

But there must have been information-creating, ergodic processes at work before terrestrial life appeared. They created the informational substrate for life, in particular, the sun and the planetary environment hospitable to the origin of life on earth.

Monod says that some biologists have been unhappy with his idea of teleonomy, that living beings are endowed with a purpose or a project, but he says this is essential to the definition of living beings. His next criterion isautonomous morphogenesis. He says,

…a living being’s structure results from a … process … that owes almost nothing to the action of outside forces, but everything, from its overall shape down to its tiniest detail, to “morphogenetic” interactions within the object itself.

We now know this is only “adequate determinism

It is thus a structure giving proof of an autonomous determinism: precise, rigorous, implying a virtually total “freedom” with respect to outside agents or conditions — which are capable, to be sure, of impeding this development, but not of governing or guiding it, not of prescribing its organizational scheme to the living object. Through the autonomous and spontaneous character of the morphogenetic processes that build the macroscopic structure of living beings, the latter are absolutely distinct from artifacts, as they are, furthermore, from the majority of natural objects whose macroscopic morphology largely results from the influence of external agents.

Crystals are one of the few purely physical “ergodic” processes, reducing the entropy locally

To this there is a single exception: that, once again, of crystals, whose characteristic geometry reflects microscopic interactions occurring within the object itself. Hence, utilizing this criterion alone, crystals would have to be classified together with living beings, while artifacts and natural objects, alike fashioned by outside agents, would comprise another class.
(Chance and Necessity, p.10)

The quantum cooperative atomic phenomena that form crystals are of course the same as form the macromolecules of life, DNA, RNA, etc.

Monod thinks there is an “internal, autonomous determinism” that “guarantees the formation of the extremely complex structures of living beings.” The “guarantee” can not be perfect as a result of statistical physics. Monod is fully aware of quantum indeterminacy. After discussing chance in terms of probability and games of chance, he says,

on the microscopic level there exists a further source of still more radical uncertainty, embedded in the quantum structure of matter. A mutation is in itself a microscopic event, a quantum event, to which the principle of uncertainty consequently applies. An event which is hence and by its very nature essentially unpredictable.

Monod identifies the key evolutionary process as the transmission ofinformation from one living information structure to the next. Note that this is accomplished in the constant presence of thermal and quantal noise


Such structures represent a considerable quantity of information whose source has still to be identified: for all expressed — and hence received — information presupposes a source. He says “the source of the information expressed in the structure of a living being is always another, structurally identical object.”

[Living beings have the] ability to produce and to transmit ne varietur the information corresponding to their own structure. A very rich body of information, since it describes an organizational scheme which, along with being exceedingly complex, is preserved intact from one generation to the next. The term we shall use to designate this property is invariant reproduction, or simply invariance.With their invariant reproduction we find living beings and crystalline structures once again sharing a property that renders them unlike all other known objects in the universe. Certain chemicals in supersaturated solution do not crystallize unless the solution has been inoculated with crystal seeds. We know as well that in cases of a chemical capable of crystallizing into two different systems, the structure of the crystals appearing in the solution will be determined by that of the seed employed.
(Chance and Necessity, p.12)

Monod claims that the main distinction between crystals and living things is the quantity of information transmitted between the generations. He thus neglects the creativity inherent in the acquisition and transmission ofknowledge by living things.

Crystalline structures, however, represent a quantity of information by several orders of magnitude inferior to that transmitted from one generation to another in the simplest living beings we are acquainted with. By this criterion — purely quantitative, be it noted — living beings may be distinguished from all other objects, crystals included.

In his major contribution toward an informational approach to biology, Monod goes on to make a quantitative estimate of what he calls the “teleonomic level” of a species, arranging them in a hierarchy based purely on information content. This is an important beginning for information-based biological science.

…since a structure’s degree of order can be defined in units of information, we shall say that the “invariance content” of a given species is equal to the amount of information which, transmitted from one generation to the next, assures the preservation of the specific structural standard. As we shall see later on, with the help of a few assumptions it will be possible to arrive at an estimate of this amount.That in turn will enable us to bring into better focus the notion most immediately and plainly inspired by the examination of the structures and performances of living beings, that of teleonomy. Analysis nevertheless reveals it to be a profoundly ambiguous concept, since it implies the subjective idea of “project.” [Consider] the example of the camera: if we agree that this object’s existence and structure realize the “project” of capturing images, we must also agree, obviously enough, that a similar project is accomplished with the emergence of the eye of a vertebrate.

But it is only as a part of a more comprehensive project that each individual project, whatever it may be, has any meaning. All the functional adaptations in living beings, like all the artifacts they produce, fulfill particular projects which may be seen as so many aspects or fragments of a unique primary project, which is the preservation and multiplication of the species.

To be more precise, we shall arbitrarily choose to define the essential teleonomic project as consisting in the transmission from generation to generation of the invariance content characteristic of the species. All the structures, all the performances, all the activities contributing to the success of the essential project will hence be called “teleonomic.”

This allows us to put forward at least the principle of a definition of a species’ “teleonomic level.’ All teleonomic structures and performances can be regarded as corresponding to a certain quantity of information which must be transmitted for these structures to be realized and -these performances accomplished. Let us call this quantity “teleonomic information.” A given species’ “teleonomic level” may then be said to correspond to the quantity of information which, on the average and per individual, must be transferred to assure the generation-to-generation transmission of the specific content of reproductive invariance.
(Chance and Necessity, pp.13-14)

For François Jacob, who shared the Nobel Prize with Jacques Monod, teleonomy was a basic characteristic of every cell. Jacob said that the basic purpose and desire of every cell is to become two cells


But Monod sees that his teleonomy appears to be in conflict with a basic tenet, the very cornerstone, of modern science.

The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that “true” knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose.” An exact date may be given for the discovery of this canon. The formulation by Galileo and Descartes of the principle of inertia laid the groundwork not only for mechanics but for the epistemology of modern science, by abolishing Aristotelian physics and cosmology. To be sure, neither reason, nor logic, nor observation, nor even the idea of their systematic confrontation had been ignored by Descartes’ predecessors. But science as we understand it today could not have been developed upon those foundations alone. It required the unbending stricture implicit in the postulate of objectivity — ironclad, pure, forever undemonstrable. For it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end.But the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science; it has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. There is no way to be rid of it, even tentatively or in a limited area, without departing from the domain of science itself.

Objectivity nevertheless obliges us to recognize the teleonomic character of living organisms, to admit that in their structure and performance they act projectively — realize and pursue a purpose. Here therefore, at least in appearance, lies a profound epistemological contradiction. In fact the central problem of biology lies with this very contradiction, which, if it is only apparent, must be resolved; or else proven to be utterly insoluble, if that should turn out indeed to be the case.
(Chance and Necessity, pp.21-2)

Monod’s resolution of his “profound epistemological contradiction” is to make teleonomy secondary to – and a consequence of – reproductive invariance.

Since the teleonomic properties of living beings appear o challenge one of the basic postulates of the modern theory of knowledge, any philosophical, religious, or scientific view of the world must, ipso facto, offer an implicit if not an explicit solution to this problem.{T]he single hypothesis that modern science here deems acceptable: namely, that invariance necessarily precedes teleonomy. Or, to be more explicit;` the Darwinian idea that the initial appearance, evolution, and steady refinement of ever more intensely teleonomic structures are due to perturbations occurring in a structure which already possesses the property of invariance — hence is capable of (preserving the effects of chance and thereby submitting them to the play of natural selection.

Ranking teleonomy as a secondary property deriving from invariance — alone seen as primary — the selective theory is the only one so far proposed that is consistent with the postulate of objectivity. It is at the same time the only one not merely compatible with modern physics but based squarely upon it, without restrictions or additions. In short, the selective theory of evolution assures the epistemological coherence of biology and gives it its place among the sciences of “objective nature.”
(Chance and Necessity, pp.23-4)

Monod summarizes the history of philosophy more or less as we do (and asKarl Popper does), along the lines of the great division, or dualism, between idealists and materialists.

We see the distinction as between those who think information is an invariant and those who see it as constantly increasing. Monod’s focus onreproductive invariance may prevent him seeing the importance of novelty and creation of new information. Ever since its birth in the Ionian Islands almost three thousand years ago, Western philosophy has been divided between two seemingly opposed attitudes. According to one of them the authentic and ultimate truth of the world can reside only in perfectly immutable forms, by essence unvarying. According to the other, the only real truth resides in flux and evolution. From Plato to Whitehead and from Heraclitus to Hegel and Marx, it is clear that these metaphysical epistemologies were always closely bound up with their authors’ ethical and political biases. These ideological edifices, represented as self-evident to reason, were actually a posteriori constructions designed to justify preconceived ethico-political theories.
(Chance and Necessity, p.99)

Monod on Knowledge and Value

Like many scientists, Monod regards the open search for knowledge and truth as of intrinsic value. Can he go on to make knowledge itself a value in the objective world of “value-free” science? Monod seeks an “ethic of knowledge.”

Must one adopt the position once and for all that objective truth and the theory of values constitute eternally separate, mutually impenetrable domains? This is the attitude taken by a great number of modern thinkers, whether writers, or philosophers, or indeed scientists. For the vast majority of men, whose anxiety it can only perpetuate and worsen, this attitude I believe will not do; I also believe it is absolutely mistaken, and for two essential reasons.First, and obviously, because values and knowledge are always and necessarily associated in action just as in discourse.

Second, and above all, because the very definition of “true” knowledge reposes in the final analysis upon an ethical postulate.

Each of these two points demands some brief clarification.

Ethics and knowledge are inevitably linked in and through action. Action brings knowledge and values simultaneously into play, or into question. All action signifies an ethic, serves or disserves certain values; or constitutes a choice of values, or pretends to. On the other hand, knowledge is necessarily implied in all action, while reciprocally, action is one of the two necessary sources of knowledge.

The moment one makes objectivity the conditio sine qua non of true knowledge, a radical distinction, indispensable to the very search for truth, is established between the domains of ethics and of knowledge. Knowledge in itself is exclusive of all value judgment (all save that of “epistemological value”) whereas ethics, in essence nonobjective, is forever barred from the sphere of knowledge.

The postulate of objectivity…prohibits any confusion of value judgments with judgments arrived at through knowledge. Yet the fact remains that these two categories inevitably unite in the form of action, discourse included. In order to abide by our principle we shall therefore take the position that no discourse or action is to be considered meaningful, authentic unless — or only insofar as — it makes explicit and preserves the distinction between the two categories it combines. Thus defined, the concept of authenticity becomes the common ground where ethics and knowledge meet again; where values and truth, associated but not interchangeable, reveal their full significance to the attentive man alive to their resonance.

In an objective system…any mingling of knowledge with values is unlawful, forbidden. But — and here is the crucial point, the logical link which at their core weds knowledge and values together — this prohibition, this “first commandment” which ensures the foundation of objective knowledge, is not itself objective. It cannot be objective: it is an ethical guideline, a rule for conduct. True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it cannot be grounded elsewhere than upon a value judgment, or rather upon an axiomatic value. It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledgeconstitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. Thus, assenting to the principle of objectivity one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge.

By the very loftiness of its ambition the ethic of knowledge might perhaps satisfy this urge in man to project toward something higher. It sets forth a transcendent value, true knowledge, and invites him not to use it self-servingly but henceforth to enter into its service from deliberate and conscious choice. At the same time it is also a humanism, for in man it respects the creator and repository of that transcendence.

The ethic of knowledge is also in a sense “knowledge of ethics,” a clear-sighted appreciation of the urges and passions, the requirements and limitations of the biological being. It is able to confront the animal in man, to view him not as absurd but strange, precious in his very strangeness: the creature who, belonging simultaneously to the animal kingdom and the kingdom of ideas, is simultaneously torn and enriched by this agonizing duality, alike expressed in art and poetry and in human love.

Conversely, the animist systems have to one degree or another preferred to ignore, to denigrate or bully biological man, and to instill in him an abhorrence or terror of certain traits inherent in his animal nature. The ethic of knowledge, on the other hand, encourages him to honor and assume this heritage, knowing the while how to dominate it when necessary. As for the highest human qualities, courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition, the ethic of knowledge both recognizes their sociobiological origin and affirms their transcendent value in the service of the ideal it defines.
(Chance and Necessity, pp.173-9)

Monod’s Historical Error on Chance and Necessity

Monod took the title of his work from a statement by Democritus that he imagined or misremembered (an example of the Cogito Model for human creativity). He opens his book with this quotation,

Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity. Democritus

Unfortunately, Democritus made no such statement. As the founder of determinism, he and his mentor Leucippus were adamantly opposed to chance or randomness. Leucippus insisted on an absolute necessity which leaves no room in the cosmos for chance.

“Nothing occurs at random (maten), but everything for a reason (logos) and by necessity.”οὐδὲν χρῆμα μάτηῳ γίνεται, ἀλλὰ πάντα ἐκ λόγου τε καὶ ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης

See Jacques Monod on I-Phi