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