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«chapter 6 Free Will and Determinism Theodore Sider The Problem Suppose you are kidnaped and forced to commit a series of terrible murders. The ...»

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Baseballs and bats are made up of atoms. These atoms consist of nuclei and surrounding clouds of electrons. When one atom approaches another, the electrons of the atoms repel one another with electromagnetic forces. The closer together the atoms get, the stronger the forces become. Eventually the forces become so strong that they push the atoms away from each other. This occurs when the atoms get very close to each other, but before their clouds of electrons start to overlap. Thus, as Bonds’s bat closed in on the baseball, the outermost atoms of the bat began to repel the outermost atoms of the ball, until eventually the ball came to a halt and Xew in the opposite direction. At every moment there was some space between the bat and the ball. In fact, there is never absolutely zero space between bats and balls,  Free Will and Determinism nor between Wsts and jaws, Wngers and computer keyboards, or any other things we consider to be in contact. Yet we all believe that contact regularly occurs. So we have another apparent conXict, this time between our belief in high-school science and our belief that things are regularly in contact. Should we renounce one of these beliefs? Obviously not. We should instead reject the proposed deWnition of ‘contact’. Those who accept that deWnition are in a sense conceptually confused. For things can be in contact even when there is a small amount of space in between them. (What then is the correct deWnition of contact? Tough question! What about: things are in contact when there is no visible space in between? This is only a start.) The soft determinist makes a similar claim about free will.

Determinism seems to conXict with freedom only because we misunderstand the concept of freedom. If ‘free’ meant ‘uncaused’, then the conXict would be real. But that’s not what ‘free’ means. (Remember Mother Teresa.) Once we clear up our conceptual confusion, the conXict will vanish. Then we can believe in both free will and determinism. Properly understood, they were never really opposed.

So far so good. But if ‘free’ doesn’t mean ‘uncaused’, what does it mean? The soft determinist wants to say, roughly, that a free action is one that is caused in the right way. When you were kidnaped and forced to commit murders, your actions were unfree because they were caused in the wrong way. Free actions, such as Hitler’s invasion of Poland, my writing of this chapter, and your reading it, also have causes, but they are caused in the right way. All actions have causes, but having a cause doesn’t settle whether an action is free. Whether it is free is settled by what kind of cause it has. If free actions are those that are caused in the right way, as this deWnition says, then an action can be both free and caused. Thus, given this deWnition, freedom and determinism do not conXict.

Hard determinists and libertarians may object that all causes should be treated alike. So long as my choice is caused by events  Free Will and Determinism 127 before my birth, it is unfree; it does not matter how it is caused. But for some purposes, soft determinists can reply, it is clear that causes are not all alike. Causing a running back to fall by tackling him is legal football; causing him to fall by shooting him with a crossbow is not. The rules of football treat some causes diVerently from others. According to soft determinists, we can think of freedom and morality in an analogous way. Morality, like football, has rules. These rules treat some causes diVerently from others. If an action is caused in a certain way—the right way—then the rules of morality count that action as free. But if an action is caused in the wrong way, then the rules count that action as unfree.

It is admittedly strange that my actions can be free even though they were caused by events that occurred before I was born. Some philosophers reject soft determinism on this basis.

But given the implausibility of hard determinism and libertarianism, soft determinism at least deserves a fair hearing.

Soft determinists must reWne their theory, though. When they say that free actions must be caused ‘in the right way’, what exactly does that mean? Examples were given: Hitler’s invasion was caused in the right way; murders coerced by your kidnaper were caused in the wrong way. But examples are not good enough. We need a deWnition.

Here is a Wrst stab: a free action is one that is caused by the person’s beliefs and desires. This checks out with some of the examples.

When kidnaped, your beliefs and desires did not cause you to shoot the Wrst victim or to fall from the airplane onto the third.

You did not want to do these things; your actions were caused by the beliefs and desires of your kidnaper. So the proposed deWnition correctly counts your behavior in those cases as not being free. It also correctly counts Hitler’s invasion as being free, since the invasion was caused by Hitler’s sinister beliefs and desires.

Likewise, since my beliefs and desires caused me to write this chapter, and yours caused you to read it, these actions are also free, according to this deWnition.

 Free Will and Determinism But the deWnition’s success does not last. Recall the second victim, whom you poisoned while you were hypnotized. If your kidnaper hypnotized you into wanting to poison the victim, then the poisoning was caused by your beliefs and desires. So the deWnition says that you were free. Yet you obviously were not free. So the deWnition is wrong. The soft determinist needs a better deWnition.





When you were hypnotized, you acquired beliefs and desires against your will. So maybe we should change the deWnition to say: a free action is one that is caused by the person’s beliefs and desires, provided that the person has freely chosen those beliefs and desires. But this deWnition is circular: the word ‘free’ is used in its own deWnition. If circular deWnitions were kosher, we could have used a much simpler one: a free action is one that is free. But this is clearly unhelpful. Circular deWnitions are unacceptable.

(Circularity aside, it’s not even clear that the modiWed deWnition is correct. I have freely decided to continue to work on this chapter. My decision was caused by my desire to complete this book. Is it really true that I have freely chosen this desire? I doubt it. I want to complete the book simply because that’s the kind of guy I am. I didn’t choose to have this desire; I just Wnd myself having it. But this doesn’t seem to undermine the fact that my decision to continue working is free.) What about this then: a free action is one that is caused by the person’s beliefs and desires, provided that the person was not compelled by another person to have those beliefs and desires? This new deWnition raises as many questions as it answers. What does the word ‘compelled’ mean here? (Philosophers always ask questions like this.) When you think about it, ‘compelled’ in its ordinary sense means something like: ‘caused so as to destroy freedom’. But then it is circular to deWne ‘free’ in terms of ‘compelled’, for ‘compelled’ is itself deWned in terms of ‘free’.

The circularity is not so blatant as when the word ‘free’ itself was used in the deWnition, but it is circularity all the same. So the soft  Free Will and Determinism 129 determinist had better not be using ‘compelled’ in its ordinary sense.

The deWnition would not be circular if ‘compelled’ just meant ‘caused’. But then the deWnition wouldn’t work. Recall my free decision to continue to work on this chapter. The deWnition requires that this decision is caused by my beliefs and desires, and it is—by my desire to complete the book. The deWnition further requires that this desire is not caused by any other person. But one of the causes of this desire does involve other people: my parents instilled diligence and a love of learning in me. So if causal involvement by another person renders a desire compelled, then my desire to continue working is compelled.

We all believe and desire as we do in part because of our causal interactions with others; no one is an island. So if ‘compelled’ meant ‘caused’, the deWnition would imply that no one ever does anything freely. That’s not what the soft determinist intends.

Another problem with the deWnition is that not all compulsion is by another person. A kleptomaniac compulsively desires to steal, and so steals. But he is not free; he cannot help his compulsive desires. Yet the deWnition counts him as free. For his stealing is caused by his beliefs and desires, and he is not compelled by another person to have those beliefs and desires. We could just delete ‘by another person’. The deWnition would then read: a free action is one that is caused by the person’s beliefs and desires, provided that the person was not compelled to have those beliefs and desires. But the problem of the meaning of ‘compelled’ remains. It cannot mean ‘caused’ (given determinism, all beliefs and desires are caused). It cannot mean ‘caused so as to not destroy freedom’ (that would be circular).

Let’s take one Wnal crack at a deWnition: a free action is one that is caused by the person’s beliefs and desires, provided that those beliefs and desires Xow from ‘who the person is’. The idea of ‘who the person is’ needs to be explained. Consider the case of hypnotism: after you  Free Will and Determinism snap out of your hypnotized state, you will be inclined to protest that poisoning the second victim did not result from ‘who you are’. It was out of character for you. Even though you desired to poison him at the time (because of the hypnosis), that desire conXicts with the values by which you live at other times, and so did not Xow from ‘who you are’. The notion of ‘who you are’ can be further explained by distinguishing between Wrstorder desires, which are desires to do certain things, and second-order desires, which are desires to have certain Wrst-order desires. For example, you may have a Wrst-order desire to spend every Saturday indoors playing video games, but a second-order desire to not have such an unhealthy Wrst-order desire. If your Wrst-order desires are caused by your second-order desires, then they Xow from ‘who you are’. But if you do not care at all about what you Wrst-order desire, or if you do care but fail in your attempts to square Wrst-order desires with your second-order desires, then your desires do not Xow from ‘who you are’. Thus, even though the kleptomaniac’s thievery is caused by his beliefs and desires, it may not be free; for he may want very much to not desire to steal, yet nevertheless keep Wnding himself with this reprehensible desire. If his second-order desire not to want to steal has no impact on his Wrst-order desire to steal, then this Wrst-order desire does not Xow from ‘who he is’. And it is the Wrst-order desire that is responsible for his pilfering ways.

This last deWnition may be on the right track, but there is still work to be done. First, the deWnition says that your desires under hypnosis do not Xow from ‘who you are’ because they do not match the desires you usually have; they are uncharacteristic. But many perfectly ordinary free actions are caused by uncharacteristic desires. Though I am generally a nice person, a couple of times in my life I have irritably snapped at someone. Despite being uncharacteristic for me, my snapping was obviously a free action. So my desire to snap had better count as Xowing from ‘who I am’. Somehow, the deWnition must treat my desire to snap  Free Will and Determinism 131 diVerently from your hypnotized desire to poison—even though each desire is out of character.

Second, compare two ways of changing ‘who one is’. Way one:

someone permanently brainwashes me into becoming a horrible person. The brainwashing is so thorough that for the rest of my life, I want nothing more than to harm people. At Wrst, my actions seem out of character. But soon everyone forgets my former good qualities and regards me as a monster. Are my subsequent actions free? The question is hard, but it seems that they are at least partially unfree, since the new, evil ‘who I am’ results from brainwashing. Way two: I undergo moral transformation.

After recognizing that my life is going badly and in need of reform, I change ‘who I am’, perhaps with the help of a spiritual leader, therapist, or other moral guide. (Moral transformation can also go from better to worse: we have all heard stories of promising young people who make the wrong decisions, fall in with the wrong crowd, and become self-destructive and immoral. The members of the ‘wrong crowd’ serve as negative moral ‘guides’.) Unlike brainwashing, moral transformation does not destroy free will. But in each case, one acts in accordance with ‘who one is’, though that has changed under the inXuence of other people. Somehow, the deWnition must treat these cases diVerently.

Coming up with a good soft determinist deWnition of freedom is no piece of cake. Then again, who ever said it should be easy?

DeWning anything interesting is hard. (A few paragraphs ago, we couldn’t even deWne a measly word like ‘contact’.) And look at the alternatives to soft determinism: libertarianism (‘I know from my armchair that physics is incomplete!’) and hard determinism (‘I reject everything good about humanity!’). If our Wrst attempts to give a soft determinist deWnition of freedom don’t succeed, we should just keep trying.

 Free Will and Determinism further reading Gary Watson’s anthology Free Will (Oxford University Press, 1982) contains a number of interesting papers on free will. See especially the papers by Roderick Chisholm, Peter van Inwagen, A. J. Ayer, and Harry Frankfurt. Chisholm defends libertarianism, van Inwagen gives a careful argument against soft determinism, Ayer defends a simple form of soft determinism, and Frankfurt defends a more sophisticated form of soft determinism using the distinction between Wrst- and secondorder desires.

Timothy O’Connor, Persons and Causes (Oxford University Press,

2000) contains an extended defense of libertarianism.

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