Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism — Part 1

Officalmeby Gregg D. Caruso

[This two-part essay was inspired by the author’s TEDx talk on the same topic, which can be viewed here.] [1]

Contemporary theories of free will tend to fall into one of two general categories, namely, those that insist on and those that are skeptical about the reality of human freedom and moral responsibility. The former category includes libertarian and compatibilist accounts of free will, two general views that defend the reality of free will but disagree on its nature. The latter category includes a family of skeptical views that all take seriously the possibility that human beings do not have free will, and are therefore not morally responsible for their actions in a way that would make them truly deserving of blame and praise for them [2]. The main dividing line between the two pro-free will positions, libertarianism and compatibilism, is best understood in terms of the traditional problem of free will and determinism. Determinism, as it is commonly understood, is roughly the thesis that every event or action, including human action, is the inevitable result of preceding events and actions and the laws of nature. The problem of free will and determinism therefore comes in trying to reconcile our intuitive sense of free will with the idea that our choices and actions may be causally determined by impersonal forces over which we have no ultimate control.

Libertarians and compatibilists react to this problem in different ways. Libertarians acknowledge that if determinism is true, and all of our actions are causally necessitated by antecedent circumstances, we lack free will and moral responsibility. Yet they further maintain that at least some of our choices and actions must be free in the sense that they are not causally determined. Libertarians therefore reject determinism and defend a counter-causal conception of free will in order to save what they believe are necessary conditions for free will — i.e., the ability to do otherwise in exactly the same set of conditions and the idea that we remain, in some important sense, the ultimate source/originator of action. Compatibilists, on the other hand, set out to defend a less ambitious form of free will, one which can be reconciled with the acceptance of determinism. They hold that what is of utmost importance is not the falsity of determinism, nor that our actions are uncaused, but that our actions are voluntary, free from constraint and compulsion, and caused in the appropriate way. Different compatibilist accounts spell out the exact requirements for compatibilist freedom differently but popular theories tend to focus on such things as reasons-responsiveness, guidance control, hierarchical integration, and approval of one’s motivational states [3].

In contrast to these pro-free will positions are those views that either doubt or outright deny the existence of free will and/or moral responsibility. Such views are often referred to as skeptical views, or simply free will skepticism, and are the focus of this article. In the past, the standard argument for skepticism was hard determinism: the view that determinism is true, and incompatible with free will and moral responsibility — either because it precludes the ability to do otherwise (leeway incompatibilism) or because it is inconsistent with one’s being the “ultimate source” of action (source incompatibilism) — hence, no free will. For hard determinists, libertarian free will is an impossibility because human actions are part of a fully deterministic world and compatibilism is operating in bad faith.

Hard determinism had its classic statement in the time when Newtonian physics reigned (see, e.g., d’Holbach 1770), but it has very few defenders today — largely because the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics has been taken by many to undermine, or at least throw into doubt, the thesis of universal determinism. This is not to say that determinism has been refuted or falsified by modern physics, because it has not. Determinism still has its modern defenders, most notably Ted Honderich (1988, 2002), and the final interpretation of physics is not yet in. It is also important to keep in mind that even if we allow some indeterminacy to exist at the microlevel of our existence — the level studied by quantum mechanics — there would still likely remain determinism-where-it-matters (Honderich 2002, 5). As Honderich argues: “At the ordinary level of choices and actions, and even ordinary electrochemical activity in our brains, causal laws govern what happens. It’s all cause and effect in what you might call real life” (2002, 5). Nonetheless, most contemporary skeptics defend positions that are best seen as successors to traditional hard determinism.

In recent years, for example, several contemporary philosophers have offered arguments for free will skepticism, and/or skepticism about moral responsibility, that are agnostic about determinism — e.g., Derk Pereboom (2001), Galen Strawson (1986/2010), Saul Smilansky (2000), Neil Levy (2011), Richard Double (1991), Bruce Waller (2011), and Gregg Caruso (2012) [4]. Most maintain that while determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility, so too is indeterminism, especially the variety posited by quantum mechanics. Others argue that regardless of the causal structure of the universe, we lack free will and moral responsibility because free will is incompatible with the pervasiveness of luck (Levy 2011). Others (still) argue that free will and ultimate moral responsibility are incoherent concepts, since to be free in the sense required for ultimate moral responsibly we would have to be causa sui (or “cause of oneself”) and this is impossible (Strawson 1994, 2011). Here, for example, is Nietzsche on the causa sui:

“The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.” (1992, 218-19) [5]

What all these skeptical arguments have in common, and what they share with classical hard determinism, is the belief that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense — the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame or praise [6]. This is not to say that there are no other conceptions of responsibility that can be reconciled with determinism, chance, or luck. Nor is it to deny that there may be good pragmatic reasons to maintain certain systems of punishment and reward. Rather, it is to insist that to hold people truly or ultimately morally responsible for their actions — i.e., to hold them responsible in a non-consequentialist desert-based sense — would be to hold them responsible for the results of the morally arbitrary, for what is ultimately beyond their control, which is (according to the skeptic) fundamentally unfair and unjust.

In addition to these philosophical arguments, there have also been recent developments in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences that have caused many to take free will skepticism seriously. Chief among them have been the neuroscientific discovery that unconscious brain activity causally initiates action prior to the conscious awareness of the intention to act (e.g., Benjamin Libet, John-Dylan Haynes), Daniel Wegner’s work on the double disassociation of the experience of conscious will, and recent findings in psychology and social psychology on automaticity, situationism, and the adaptive unconscious (e.g., John Bargh, Timothy Wilson, Doris 2002) [7]. Viewed collectively, these developments indicate that much of what we do takes place at an automatic and unaware level and that our commonsense belief that we consciously initiate and control action may be mistaken. They also indicate that the causes that move us are often less transparent to ourselves than we might assume — diverging in many cases from the conscious reasons we provide to explain and/or justify our actions. These findings reveal that the higher mental processes that have traditionally served as quintessential examples of “free will” — such as goal pursuits, evaluation and judgment, reasoning and problem solving, interpersonal behavior, and action initiation and control — can and often do occur in the absence of conscious choice or guidance (Bargh and Ferguson 2000, 926). They also reveal just how wide open our internal psychological processes are to the influence of external stimuli and events in our immediate environment, without knowledge or awareness of such influence. For many these findings represent a serious threat to our everyday folk understanding of ourselves as conscious, rational, responsible agents, since they indicate that the conscious mind exercises less control over our behavior than we have traditionally assumed.

Even some compatibilists now admit that because of these behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscientific findings “free will is at best an occasional phenomenon” (Baumeister 2008b, 17). This is an important concession because it acknowledges that the threat of shrinking agency — as Thomas Nadelhoffer (2011) calls it — remains a serious one independent of any traditional concerns over determinism. That is, even if one believes free will and causal determinism can be reconciled, the deflationary view of consciousness which emerges from these empirical findings must still be confronted, including the fact that we often lack transparent awareness of our true motivational states. Such a deflationary view of consciousness is potentially agency undermining (see, e.g., Caruso 2012; Nadelhoffer 2011; King and Carruthers 2012; Sie and Wouters 2010; and Davies 2009) and must be dealt with independent of, and in addition to, the traditional compatibilist/incompatibilist debate.

In addition to these specific concerns over conscious volition and the threat of shrinking agency there is also the more general insight, more threatening to (agent-causal) libertarianism than compatibilism, that the more the brain sciences progress and we better understand the mechanisms that undergird human behavior, the more it becomes obvious that we lack what Tom Clark (2013) calls “soul control.” There is no longer any reason to believe in a non-physical self which controls action and is liberated from the deterministic laws of nature; a little uncaused causer capable of exercising counter-causal free will. While most naturalistically inclined philosophers, including most compatibilists, have long given up on the idea of soul control, eliminating such thinking from our folk psychological attitudes may not be so easy and may come at a cost for some. There is some evidence, for example, that we are “natural born” dualists (Bloom 2004) and that, at least in the United States, a majority of adults continue to believe in a non-physical soul that governs behavior (Nadelhoffer in press). To whatever extent, then, such dualistic thinking is present in our folk psychological attitudes about free will and moral responsibility, it is likely to come under pressure and require some revision as the brain sciences advance and this information reaches the general public [8].

What, then, would be the consequence of accepting free will skepticism? What if we came to disbelieve in free will and moral responsibility? What would this mean for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law? What would it do to our standing as human beings? Would it cause nihilism and despair as some maintain? Or perhaps increase anti-social behavior as some recent studies have suggested (Vohs and Schooler 2008; Baumeister, Masicampo, and DeWall 2009)? Or would it rather have a humanizing effect on our practices and policies, freeing us from the negative effects of free will belief? These questions are of profound pragmatic importance and should be of interest independent of the metaphysical debate over free will. As public proclamations of skepticism continue to rise, and as the mass media continues to run headlines announcing “Free will is an illusion” and “Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist,” [9] we need to ask what effects this will have on the general public and what the responsibility is of professionals.

In recent years a small industry has actually grown up around precisely these questions. In the skeptical community, for example, a number of different positions have been developed and advanced — including Saul Smilansky’s illusionism (2000), Thomas Nadelhoffer’s disillusionism (2011), Shaun Nichols’ anti-revolution (2007), and the optimistic skepticism of Derk Pereboom (2001, 2013a, 2014), Bruce Waller (2011), Tamler Sommers (2005, 2007b), and others.

Saul Smilansky, for example, maintains that our commonplace beliefs in libertarian free will and desert-entailing ultimate moral responsibility are illusions [10], but he also maintains that if people were to accept this truth there would be wide-reaching negative intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences. According to Smilansky, “Most people not only believe in actual possibilities and the ability to transcend circumstances, but have distinct and strong beliefs that libertarian free will is a condition for moral responsibility, which is in turn a condition for just reward and punishment” (2000, 26-27). It would be devastating, he warns, if we were to destroy such beliefs: “the difficulties caused by the absence of ultimate-level grounding are likely to be great, generating acute psychological discomfort for many people and threatening morality — if, that is, we do not have illusion at our disposal” (2000, 166). To avoid any deleterious social and personal consequences, then, and to prevent the unraveling of our moral fabric, Smilansky recommends free will illusionism. According to illusionism, people should be allowed their positive illusion of libertarian free will and with it ultimate moral responsibility; we should not take these away from people, and those of us who have already been disenchanted ought to simply keep the truth to ourselves (see also 2013).

In direct contrast to Smilansky’s illusionism, Thomas Nadelhoffer defends free will disillusionism: “the view that to the extent that folk intuitions and beliefs about the nature of human cognition and moral responsibility are mistaken, philosophers and psychologists ought to do their part to educate the public — especially when their mistaken beliefs arguably fuel a number of unhealthy emotions and attitudes such as revenge, hatred, intolerance, lack of empathy, etc.” (2011, 184). According to Nadelhoffer, “humanity must get beyond this maladaptive suit of emotions if we are to survive.” And he adds, “To the extent that future developments in the sciences of the mind can bring us one step closer to that goal — by giving us a newfound appreciation for the limits of human cognition and agency — I welcome them with open arms” (2011, 184).

A policy of disillusionism is also present in the optimistic skepticisms of Derk Pereboom and Bruce Waller. Derk Pereboom, for example, has defended the view that morality, meaning, and value remain intact even if we are not morally responsible, and furthermore, that adopting this perspective could provide significant benefits for our lives. In Living Without Free Will (2001) and again in his more recent book (2014), he argues that life without free will and desert-based moral responsibility would not be as destructive as many people believe. Prospects of finding meaning in life or of sustaining good interpersonal relationships, for example, would not be threatened (2001, ch.7). And although retributivism and severe punishment, such as the death penalty, would be ruled out, preventive detention and rehabilitation programs would be justified (2001, 2013, 2014). He even argues that relinquishing our belief in free will might well improve our well-being and our relationships to others since it would tend to eradicate an often destructive form of “moral anger.”

Bruce Waller has also made a strong case for the benefits of a world without moral responsibility. In his recent book, Against Moral Responsibility (2011), he cites many instances in which moral responsibility practices are counterproductive from a practical and humanitarian standpoint — notably in how they stifle personal development, encourage punitive excess in criminal justice, and perpetuate social and economic inequalities (see Clark 2012 review). Waller suggests that if we abandon moral responsibility “we can look more clearly at the causes and more deeply into the systems that shape individuals and their behavior” (2011, 287), and this will allow us to adopt more humane and effective interpersonal attitudes and approaches to education, criminal justice, and social policy. He maintains that in the absence of moral responsibility, “it is possible to look more deeply at the influences of social systems and situations” (2011, 286), to minimize the patent unfairness that luck deals out in life, and to “move beyond [the harmful effects of] blame and shame” (2011, 287) [11].

Who then is correct? What would the actual consequences of embracing free will skepticism be? I maintain that belief in free will and desert-based moral responsibility, rather than being a good thing, actually has a dark side and that we would be better off without it. My position is one of optimistic skepticism and disillusionism. I maintain that belief in free will, rather than providing the pragmatic benefits many claim, is too often used to justify treating people in severe and demeaning ways. The problem is the belief that individuals “justly deserve” what they get. The idea of “just deserts” — which is so central to the “moral responsibility system” (Waller 2011, 2013) — is a pernicious one. For one, it often encourages punitive excess in criminal justice, including extreme forms of retributive justice such as the death penalty. It is also used to perpetuate social and economic inequalities. The myth of the “rugged individual” or the “self-made man” (for example) fails to acknowledge the important role luck plays in our lives. The simple fact is that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control. We are not (as the moral responsibility system would like us to believe) purely or ultimately self-made men and women.

In part 2 of this essay, I will focus on the putative pragmatic benefits of believing in free will and desert-based moral responsibility, rather than (say) arguing directly for free will skepticism. As indicated earlier, regardless of the philosophical debate over free will, a profound pragmatic question remains: would the consequences of giving up the belief in free will cause nihilism and despair as some maintain, or would it rather have a humanizing effect on our practices and policies, freeing us from the negative effects of free will belief? If it turns out that belief in free will, rather than being a good thing, actually has a dark side, then this would help remove one of the major obstacles in the way of accepting free will skepticism (e.g., concerns over its negative consequences). It would also support disillusionism over illusionism as the proper course of action for free will skeptics. In section I of part 2, I will discuss one common concern people have with relinquishing the belief in free will and argue that it is unfounded. In section II, I will then make the case for the “dark side” of free will by discussing recent findings in moral and political psychology which reveal interesting, and potentially troubling, correlations between people’s free will beliefs and their other moral, religious, and political beliefs.


Gregg Caruso is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Corning Community College (SUNY) and Editor-in-Chief of Science, Religion and Culture. He is the author of Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will (2012) and the editor of Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (2013) and Science and Religion: 5 Questions (2014). In 2012 he was awarded the Regional Board of Trustees Excellence in Teaching Award.

[1] This paper includes previously published material from the book Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Copyright 2013 by Lexington Books. Used by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Inc.

[2] Most contemporary philosophers argue that free will and desert-based moral responsibility stand or fall together. Exceptions include John Martin Fisher (1994) and Bruce Waller (2011), but such views remain controversial. In fact, much of the philosophical tradition has simply defined “free will” as “a kind of power or ability to make decisions of the sort for which one can be morally responsible” (Fisher, Kane, Pereboom, and Vargas 2007, 1), where moral responsibility is understood in the basic desert sense — the sense that would make one truly deserving of praise and blame (see, e.g., Pereboom 2001, 2014).

[3] Another position similar to compatibilism but not mentioned here is semi-compatibilism. Semi-compatibilists maintain that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism but remain agnostic about whether free will is (see, for example, Fischer 1994; Fisher and Ravizza 1998).

[4] See, also, Caruso (2013). Bruce Waller maintains a skepticism of moral responsibility but not free will (see, e.g., 2011). Saul Smilansky’s position is also hard to place. While Smilansky maintains a skepticism about our purportedly commonplace belief in libertarian free will, and endorses the difficult insights of a hard determinist perspective, he also maintains that compatibilism retains some truth (see 2000, 2013). Other recent books that advance skeptical positions, but are mainly written for a general public, include Harris (2012), Oerton (2012), Evatt (2010), and Pearce (2010).

[5] As quoted by Sommers (2007a, 61) and Strawson (2011).

[6] Some skeptics, however, such as Benjamin Vilhauer (forthcoming), maintain an asymmetry in the justification of praising and blaming behavior according to which harmless praise can be justified in certain contexts but not blame.

[7] See, for example, Libet et al. (1983); Libet (1985, 1999); Soon et al. (2008); Wegner (2002); Wegner and Wheatley (1999); Bargh (1997, 2008); Bargh and Chartrand (1999); Bargh and Ferguson (2000); Wilson (2002); Nisbett and Wilson (1977); Doris (2002). The literature on Social Intuitionism (e.g., Haidt 2001) is also sometimes cited in this regard — see Sie (2013) for a brief discussion of its possible relevance. And for those unfamiliar with Wegner’s work, my reference here to the “double disassociation of the experience of conscious will” is to Wegner’s finding that the feeling of having willed an action can be doubly dissociated from actually having caused an action — that is, someone can experience themselves as having caused an action that they actually have not caused (e.g., I-Spy experiment), just as someone can think they have not caused an action that they actually have caused (e.g., alien hand syndrome, automatisms) (see Wegner 2002; Wegner and Wheatley 1999).

[8] Predicting what revisions will be made is difficult. It’s possible that relinquishing the folk psychological idea of “soul control” will cause some to accept free will skepticism. But it’s also possible that some might adopt a free-will-either-way strategy causing them to accept compatibilism on pragmatic grounds, fearing the alternative.

[9] The Chronicle Review (March 23, 2012) and Scientific American (April 6, 2010) respectively.

[10] Smilansky’s Fundamental Dualism, however, also acknowledges that certain compatibilist insights are true. As Smilansky describes his position: “I agree with hard determinists that the absence of libertarian free will is a grave matter, which ought radically to change our understanding of ourselves, of morality, and of justice. But I also agree with the compatibilists that it makes sense to speak about ideas such as moral responsibility and desert, even without libertarian free will (and without recourse to a reductionist transformation of these notions along consequentialist lines). In a nutshell … ‘forms of life’ based on the compatibilist distinctions about control are possible and morally required, but are also superficial and deeply problematic in ethical and personal terms” (2000, 5; see also 2013).

[11] According to Waller, “Blaming individuals and holding people morally responsible … is not an effective way of making either systems or people better; instead, it is a design for hiding small problems until they grow into larger ones and a design for concealing system shortcomings by blaming problems on individual failure. If we want to promote effective attention to the causes and correction of mistakes and the developments of more effective behavior and more reliable systems, then we must move away from the model of individual blame and instead encourage an open inquiry into mistakes and their causes and into how a system can be devised to prevent such mistakes and improve individual behavior” (2011, 291).

Works Cited: please see the full list at the end of part II of this essay.


57 thoughts on “Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism — Part 1

  1. Richardwein wrote “For example, suppose a compatibilist defines “free will” to mean just our ability to reflect before taking a decision. Then on that definition his claim that we have free will becomes no more than saying that we have the ability to reflect before taking a decision.” (which Brandholm commented on later).

    It seems very unrigorous for a free will denier (sorry, but I won’t play along with using the same euphemistic tactic as Climate Deniers/”Skeptics” use) to talk of “ability”.

    My point of view is to have multiple points of view, one of which is mechanical determinism or No Free Will, but to know what point of view I’m in and talk about it correctly.

    Anyway, from the POV of No Free Will, we either do or don’t reflect before taking a decision, or maybe a given subject reflects 37% of the time based on observation, or maybe you or I reflect before X types of decision, but please, no “can” (or ability to) reflect.


  2. One thing that I am skeptical of: Dismissing the existence of quantum randomness as a (possibly necessary) component of consciousness and free will. [1,2] (Maybe that makes me a free will skeptic skeptic.) And I think the formula “free will = consciousness + reasoning” [3] is as good as any. So anything that is conscious and reasons has free will.



  3. Commenting here, since I have comments to burn, and extending some of my thoughts from a blog post about what seems to me to be more and more a mess of bad reasoning. Sorry, no other way to put it.

    A BELIEF in free will is about as much the same thing as the EXISTENCE of free will as a belief in Jesus or Santa is the same thing as the existence of Jesus or Santa. Gregg, I think you’re failing to distinguish between belief in free will and actual existence of free will, and I think that’s where a lot of problems lie with myself, Bill, Brandholm and others insisting that there’s no logical connection between free will and theories of justice.

    If THAT is your premise for claiming a logical connection between free will and theories of justice, that it’s actually some connection between a BELIEF in free will and theories of justice, I can totally buy into what you’re “saying,” or what you think, behind what you’ve actually said.

    But, I’m making assumptions about your thought process.

    If, instead, you still continue to believe that actual free will, not a belief in it, is somehow logically connected to theories of justice, in spite of schools of ethics saying otherwise, I got nothing else to say on either essay.

    I would add one other thing.

    On my “mu,” not just with Gregg but in general, I’m at the point where I think we should just stop talking about free will for, oh, about another century or so.


    Cognitive neuroscience in particular, and science of mind in general, isn’t going to move from the Early Bronze Age into the Iron Age for at least that long, and it’s ridiculous, ultimately, to talk about issues of volition, and theories of them, before then.

    Beyond that, I’ve wrapped up multiple comments of mine, and extended them, into a blog post:


  4. Great article,

    I have to agree with some of the other comments with regard to hard determinism and compatibility not being so different after all. In addition, the following statement is extremely misleading:

    “Hard determinism had its classic statement in the time when Newtonian physics reigned (see, e.g., d’Holbach 1770), but it has very few defenders today — largely because the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics has been taken by many to undermine, or at least throw into doubt, the thesis of universal determinism.”

    I’ll be the first to say that there are many, many more than a few defenders of hard determinism left (myself included). In addition, I’ve pointed out before that using quantum mechanics as an argument against determinism isn’t very powerful. There are many interpretations (including several that seem to be gaining ground in the physics community) that are completely deterministic. Pointing out that the seeming randomness of QM should give pause to determinism is one thing. Claiming that there are very few adherents based on a standard interpretation of QM that is becoming increasingly unpalatable within the scientific community is something else entirely.

    I know I’ve mentioned Carroll’s comments on this issue here before, and I think it’s definitely worth a read. It’s very similar to what I would say is my position:


  5. ejwinner

    the science would have to be precise and complete enough to assure us that there are no unpredictable choice events, and that a subject’s own efforts to intervene in choice events are themselves equally predictable. Technically, while we speak in common language that we ‘change our minds,’ this would need to be shown to be false, that even changes of mind are wholly predictable given the subject, the situation, and the stimuli.

    That seems like a tall (and still vague) order, one that I don’t think physicists or any other scientist are held up to when trying to demonstrate functional relationships between variables. You can get very high precision in psychology and neuroscience for simple cases where adequate experimental control is present so I don’t see why you would doubt that human behavior is the function of genes/environment. More complex analysis are also being done for complex situations (large social ones as you mentioned) but even there, there is nothing to show that those systems are not deterministic, even if they maybe chaotic. The only real limitation I see that is unique to human behavioral fields is ethical restrictions that would prevent experimental control in every area.

    The same could be said for many areas in physics, 3 body problem or climate science, which doesn’t change the deterministic nature of the system. In other words, you’re asking behavioral scientists the equivalent of asking a physicist to predict the behavior of clouds perfectly. Their inability to do that doesn’t show that clouds are behaving according to free will of their own but rather the difficulty and chaotic nature of clouds.

    Behavioral analysis is strongly deterministic, but not completely so, that hope seems to have collapsed under the weight of random variables, especially the disjunction between clinical situations and actual social situations.

    Being a researcher in behavior analysis, I’m not sure what collapse your speaking of. Behavior analysis has only increased in its research success to higher levels of precision and to more and more complex situations, especially with more recent developments in the field related to relational frame theory, macro/quantitative behavior analysis, and large-scale clinical application in public health and prevention science.

    But given a breakdown of such social controls, revolutions should be completely predictable – but they’re not, their occurrence and their outcomes are probabilistic.

    I wouldn’t argue against the behavioral sciences being probabilistic, even from the out set even behavior analysis has been a selectionist/probabilistic determinism. The same can be said for evolutionary biology and various fields of physics.


  6. As much as I appreciate a healthy dose of skepticism, I am more often than not puzzled when people justify their skeptical stance on x with the qualification that they are skeptical of a “true x”, such as “true free will” or “true moral responsibility”. As a pragmatic “almost x” or “as good as x” is usually good enough for me.

    More on topic I often wonder whether free will skeptics are as quick to dismiss “genuinely deserved praise” as they dismiss “just desert”. I remember a quite lucid exposition by Sam Harris (I know, I know, not necessarily the best pick as an opponent) where he argues in favor of free will skepticism of the above kind, allthewhile seemingly taking for granted that he is nonetheless entitled to praise (and fees) for his book on the same topic.


  7. imzasirf,
    Two dogs meet on the street; one complains of not finding enough to eat. The other says, “oh, that’s easy; you just go down to the Pavlov Institute, let them ring a bell, salivate, and they give you food.” (By way of Umberto Eco.)

    I was talking about classical Behaviorism, Pavlov, Watson, Skinner. I know that more recent behavioral analysis has gotten more complex and subtle, and precisely because more variables are needing to be accounted for than in the classical models. But as it grows more complex, potential unpredictable response still seems to be a problem for it. I could be wrong.

    As noted, I like holding a position that allows the possibility of my being wrong until all the data are in and a well-realized model is in place accounting for it.

    The standard for realization of such a model of human behavior has to be higher than for the physical and biological sciences, first because the relationship between the organism and the social environment seems to me far more complex and contingent than relationships studied in physics and biology, and secondly because the stakes are considerably higher, since they ultimately have to do with our own behavior, from how we dress, to how we raise children, to the very language we speak.

    “In other words, you’re asking behavioral scientists the equivalent of asking a physicist to predict the behavior of clouds perfectly.” – I’ve never asked any clouds out on a date, and my opposition to the death penalty doesn’t effect the weather. I’m not trying to be glib; the sense of choice may be an illusion, and probably that’s true in most choice events. But the very fact that we have such a sense itself presents a problem that isn’t easily dismissed, and I think it needs fuller accounting than it currently does. I don’t think I’m moving any goal posts, they have always been there, which is why such debates have been going on for 3000+ years. They look to be simple 3 dimensional posts we can at least punt over, but they may be N-dimensional, because of the social and historical contingencies involved. While I know that the probabilities of human behavior can be calculated to a large extent similarly to those in physics and biology, I would argue that they are of a different order, if not in their analysis, then certainly in their application, and that makes all the difference in the world. (One argument against the death penalty is that we do not know, at the moment of conviction, the kind of personality the convicted will develop, say, 20 years from now, other than it will be different; whereas classical personality theory – going back to Aristotle – always assumed that character was fixed at an early age.)

    Again, I am not suggesting there is no determinism; on the contrary. I am merely holding unto a compatibilist position because I believe there are issues incompatibilism has not yet fully addressed.


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