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 Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer was a neo-Kantian philosopher who had a great influence on the philosophical implications of quantum physics, by personal contacts with the major quantum physicists, and through his 1936 book Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics. The English translation, published in 1956, was prepared with the help of Henry Margenau, who had studied with Cassirer.
Max Born said it was a satisfaction to him that Cassirer “also sees the philosophical importance of quantum theory not so much in the question of indeterminism but in the possibility of several complementary perspectives in the description of the same phenomena as soon as different standpoints of meaning are taken.”
Arthur Stanley Eddington had associated free decisions with “free” electron jumps, a position he repudiated a few years after Cassirer’s book.
Cassirer attacked this simplistic notion:

When it is said that the electron is bound in no other way than as demanded by these rules, or that it has a certain playground within which it is “free,” this is nothing else and nothing more than a metaphysical mode of expression. From this interpretation of freedom as a mere possibility, bounded by natural laws, there is no path toward that reality of will and decision which concerns ethics. To identify the “selection” (Auswahl) that an electron is able to make from the set of different quantum orbits — in accordance with Bohr’s theory — with “choice” (Wahl) in the ethical sense of that concept would be to succumb to a purely linguistic confusion. For a choice exists only when there are not only different possibilities, but where also a conscious differentiation and a conscious decision is made.

Note that Cassirer is here very close to the idea of the two-stage Cogito model of free will, if he would accept the different possibilities as generated by quantum randomness.
But Cassirer strongly defends determinism (p.203), so doubts that quantum mechanics can help with the problem of free will:

The new mode of determination which is to be established is not built on the ruins of nature’s conformity to law; rather it joins the latter as a correlative and complement. For this reason alone it is most questionable whether, or in what manner, a relaxation or dissolution of scientific determinism can be made useful for the solution of the fundamental problem of ethics.

Cassirer is concerned about the randomness objection in the standard argument against free will
A “freedom” emanating from such a source and based on such a foundation would be a fatal gift to ethics. For it would contradict the characteristic and positive meaning of ethics; it would not leave room for that moral responsibility the possibility and necessity of which ethics aims to prove. Whenever something is “ascribed” to a person in the ethical sense, it presupposes, and is connected with, some type of prior determination on the part of that person. An action which should simply fall out of the causal nexus, which should take place at random without reasons, would stand entirely alone and could not be referred or ascribed to a persisting ethical subject.

Dogmatic fatalism is pre-determinism. Adequate determinism is a critically developed determinism
Only an action “grounded” in some way can be considered a responsible action, and the value ascribed to it depends on the type, on the quality of these grounds and not on their absence. Thus the question of free will cannot and must not be confused with the question of physical indeterminism. The free will whose establishment concerns ethics is incompatible with a dogmatic fatalism; but it is by no means incompatible with a critically conceived and developed determinism.

Henry Margenau on Ernst Cassirer
Margenau was a close colleague, perhaps more a disciple, of Ernst Cassirer and generally claimed to agree with Cassirer’s thoughts on causality and determinism. When Cassirer died, Margenau was preparing an appendix for the 1956 English translation of Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics. The appendix (and a bibliography) was to bring the question of causality up to date as of 1956.

A dozen years later, Margenau was invited to give the Wimmer Lecture at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania. His topic was Scientific Indeterminism and Human Freedom, and instead of holding to Cassirer’s view “that it would be fatal for ethics to tie itself to and, as it were, fling itself into the arms of a limitless indeterminism,” Margenau embraced indeterminism as the first step toward a solution of the problem of human freedom.

Margenau lamented that “it forces us to part company with many distinguished moral philosophers who see the autonomy of ethics threatened when a relation of any sort is assumed to exist between that august discipline and science.” He clearly means his longtime mentor. “Ethics,” says Cassirer, “should not be forced to build its nests in the gaps of physical causation, but he fails to tell where else it should build them, if at all.”
(Scientific Indeterminism and Human Freedom, Wimmer Lecture XX, 1968 (p.71))

Ernst Cassirer on Emil du Bois-Reymond
Cassirer devotes the opening pages of his Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics to the claim that “determinism” in the modern sense of a complete causal physical determinism was not really understood until an essay of du Bois-Reymond in 1872.

This seems completely wrong, but Cassirer was very influential for many modern physicists, insisting on subjective versus objective views (mirroring Neils Bohr’s dualistic complementarity, with its wave versus particle views. Cassirer preserves a spiritual view, similar to Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world view, as the realm of ethics and freedom.

Du Bois-Reymond was quite wrong about determinism, which was equated with necessity in the eighteenth-century debates about freedom versus necessity. He is right that those debates turned into questions of freedom versus determinism in the nineteenth century, but they both assumed there were causal chains that threatened human freedom. See chapter 18 on “Cassirer’s Thesis” in Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance for more.

See Ernst Cassirer 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