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. What, then, would be the consequence of accepting free will skepticism?

    I see this question as getting to the core issue.

    Free will skeptics do two things:

    (1) They assert that we have no ability to make choices;
    (2) They attempt to persuade us to make the choice of accepting free will skepticism.

    I see these as contradictory.

    The simple answer to the question (on accepting free will skepticism) should be that there could be no consequences unless we have free will. For, without free will, whether we “accept” the skepticism is entirely out of our hands.


  2. What Neil Rickert says.

    Also: If my actions/choices/decisions are pre-determined AND if I became aware of what the pre-determined option is, then I will immediately choose a different option.

    If a meta-deterministic system exists, which could successfully fore-know my discovery of the prediction of my choice, and thus predict my changing it, I could defeat that meta-system by using a “random” quantum event (e.g., a radioactive decay within a set time interval) to decide whether or not to learn of the prediction.

    And, in fact, there is some slight reason to believe that our thought processes might be triggered by quantum events which are “random” in the sense that only probabilities (as opposed to events) are predetermined. In that case, our actions are truly not predictable except in a broad statistical sense. Whether this leaves room for “moral” decision-making is not clear to me.

    Finally: the fact that we “we better understand the mechanisms that undergird human behavior” does not cause me to leap to the conclusion that humans are purely physical constructs. That may be the case, but it does not follow from simply a failure to find evidence: it should not be surprising that science, which rests on sense-data to falsify (or not) mental constructs (theories) fails to discover possible non-physical influences. Leaping from “I don’t see it” to “it doesn’t exist” is a long (an infinitely long) step.


  3. @Neil

    Free will skeptics do two things:

    (1) They assert that we have no ability to make choices;
    (2) They attempt to persuade us to make the choice of accepting free will skepticism.

    I see neither of these as exactly correct. A free-will skeptic can say that we do make choices, but not due to free will. Our choices are just neural pathways that have been conditioned to be the path of least resistance at the moment of the particular thought process that leads to them. Sometimes the choices may be two or more pathways more or less equivalent likelihood of being the easiest path and it’s not obvious which path will be taken. Suppose that my default pathway was likely to lead to eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner but I happened to see myself in the mirror a few minutes before – or I become aware that my belt is a little tight. This changes the conditioning and the pathway to avoid the ice cream becomes the path of least resistance – all inputs considered. I decline the dessert and feel a sense of pride in my difficult choice to avoid the temptation. But did I really make the choice freely?

    The second point follows the same principle. The inputs I receive in regard to the topic lead me to the preferred pathway of accepting the argument that there is no free will, so I choose to speak out about my acceptance of this argument. I see no contradiction.


  4. Let me indulge in a little skepticism of my own. The article invokes experments performed by, among others, Dylan Haynes. Here is an excerpt from a TV documentary:

    Note that Haynes here is misrepresenting his own experiment. In the actual experiment the results are derived from aggregating across all subject and all trials, and even then they are only just on the cusp of statistical significance.. (Some will defend him by claiming this is a simplification for the television audience. But this is not just a simplification – it is misrepresenting the results of the experiment).

    In this clip he is claiming to be able to predict the choices of a single subject, which is obviously nonsense.

    In fact it is very unlikely that the experiment described in this clip, with Sautoy as the sole subject, was even performed. Did the documentary makes really shell out for expensive MRI time for footage they wouldn’t use? Or was Sautoy wheeled in and then wheeled out for the cameras?

    That makes Sautoy’s scene afterwards where he acts shocked by the results, seem a little absurd.

    But the point is, why is Haynes misrepresenting his experiment here? Why are a mathematician and a scientist fibbing to me on the telly?

    Well one obvious answer is that if Haynes et al’s experiment was described accurately then the audience would find it pretty underwhelming.

    And what, exactly, is the claim being prosecuted? That most of the brain’s processing is unconscious? Well we pretty much knew that already. Most of us had worked out by the age of seven that when we lifted our arm we had no idea about how we did it. And everybody already knows about phenomena like driving somewhere but not being conscious of the trip.

    Or are the claiming that all of our actions are initiated by the unconscious brain? That is pretty much self refuting because how, then, are we talking about consciousness at all if all of our language is formed by a mechanism which is not conscious. How does an unconcsious mechanism know about consciousness? How does it know what it is not?

    If all of our language is created by an unconcious mechanism then the words “unconscious” and “conscious” would be meaningless. It is a claim that cannot even be framed coherently.

    But this illustrates my problem with the whole free will debate. There is smoke and mirrors, such as the video linked above. Then there are some fairly vague claims about some “illusion” I have about my volitional processes, but nobody can quite tell me what this “free will” that I don’t havsse is. And they furiously argue with each other about what it is I am supposed to believe instead.


  5. Hi Gregg,

    I enjoyed your article and look forward to the next one. A great survey of the various different positions, clearly written and very helpful.

    As someone who vacillates between skepticism and compatibilism, it’s hard for me to see a substantial difference between the two.

    For instance, you seem to say that skepticism entails rejecting moral responsibility while compatibilists endorse it, but I think the moral responsibility of compatibilism is “less ambitious” in the same way as compatibilist free will. The moral responsibility of compatibilism, it seems to me, is just that which justifies locking certain people up for rehabilitation, crime prevention or deterrence and has nothing to do with the kind of moral anger or self-righteousness you see as the dark side of free will. In other words, consequentialist moral responsibility seems perfectly reasonable even if ultimate (libertarian) moral responsibility does not.

    How sympathetic are you to the view that these two positions are essentially two sides of the same coin, differing only in which terms they prefer to use to describe the same basic understanding of human agency? Do you see more substantive differences and what might they be?


  6. Hi Gregg,

    As often for incompatibilist, free-will-skeptic articles, this groups together compatibilism and libertarianism and sees them both as the opposition. I feel that this is a mistake for a free-will skeptic, since the compatibilist account usually differs from deterministic incompatibilism in very little other than semantics. We should be allies!

    … the two pro-free will positions, libertarianism and compatibilism, …

    Of course the “free will” in those two cases is so different that they should not really be grouped together.

    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 …

    I agree with your argument here that determinism is incompatible with moral realism. However, I would dispute the identification of “moral responsibility” with moral realism (since to me moral realism is a complete non-starter). There are sensible and good accounts of “moral responsibility” that are non-realist, such as referring to consequentialism.

    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.

    Agreed again, but who is “we” here? A compatibilist identifies themselves, the “me”, with the low-level gubbins.

    Even some compatibilists now admit that because of these behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscientific findings “free will is at best an occasional phenomenon” …

    Any compatibilist who “admits” that is not a compatibilist! A compatibilist would not identify decision making with a surface-level “consciousness”, but would identify it with all the low-level brain machinery. Thus compatibilist choice-making is occurring every time a choice is made, and is entirely in line with the neuroscience that you point to.

    What, then, would be the consequence of accepting free will skepticism?

    Very few, in my view. Most of “our commonplace beliefs in libertarian free will” and moral realism are relatively superficial commentaries about human nature, and they can be updated and made compatible with determinism relatively straightforwardly. Indeed, the compatibilist accounts have more or less done that. Yes it has some consequences for how we think about things, but not as many as the hard determinists maintain.

    In short, as a compatibilist I agree with you in opposing libertarianism and moral realism and any dualistic notion that “we” are non-material consciousnesses that tell the physical stuff what to do. But, compatibilism is not your enemy!

    My take, “Compatibilism for incompatibilists” at this link.


  7. Thank you Massimo for allowing me to expand on my TEDx talk here at Scientia Salon. Much appreciated.

    First off, with regard to the first comment posted, let me say that free will skeptics do *not* deny we make choices. To get a better understanding of the skeptical perspective—both what it claims and what it does not claim—I would recommend the work of Derk Pereboom, Bruce Waller, Neil Levy, and Galen Strawson. I believe I address this point in a footnote in Part II, but to put the point simply here: free will skeptics do not deny we make choices or engage in acts of deliberation and reasoning. Rather, they hold that these acts themselves are the result of factors ultimately beyond the control of the agent. Skeptics acknowledge all the different compatibilists capacities that have been discussed and articulated in the literature (e.g., reasons-responsiveness, guidance control, hierarchical integration, etc.), we just maintain that these are not enough to ground basic desert moral responsibility. Hence, it’s a rather silly to say that according to free will skepticism people cannot change their minds. Free will skepticism in no way denies that people change their minds or that the exchange of reasons and arguments affect peoples’ beliefs. In fact, the whole purpose of exchanging reasons is to function as a causal influence on one’s doxastic states.

    Secondly, many of the other comments focus on determinism. Let me say two things here. First, the focus of this two part essay (as I indicate) is not to *argue for* free will skepticism as much as it is to consider the consequences of the position. Much focus has been given lately to the pragmatic dangers of adopting free will skepticism (see Vohs and Schooler 2008; Baumesiter, Masicampo and Dewall 2009; Saul Smilansky 2000; and recent comments from Daniel Dennett). My intention was to counter these concerns (this, of course, will become clearer in Part II). Secondly, with regard to determinism, the brief overview of arguments sketched here was meant to provided an updated account of the contemporary arguments for free will skepticism for those not familiar. As I noted in the article, most contemporary skeptics are not hard determinists. Many are hard incompatibilists (see Pereboom), while others are skeptics either because luck swallows everything (see Levy) or the concept of free will itself is incoherent (see G. Strawson). In this article I have not endorsed any particular argument for free will skepticism—and so, of course, that goes as well for the comments regarding John Dylan Haynes. For my own arguments against free will (which amount to a kind of hard incompatibilism), see my first book: Free Will and Consciousness (2012). Again, though, THIS article is not attempting to prove free will skepticism. I hope that clarifies some things.


  8. This is very nice — very clearly written. It’s hard to make any definitive comment before seeing the second part, but I’ll just say that I would advocate thinking about Free Will as part of a broader context. The concept of free will is part of a set of intertwined concepts that I call “Theory of Justice”, in analogy to “Theory of Mind”. The value of ToJ is that it provides a set of broadly accepted rules for the application of punishment. The most important question that free will skeptics need to answer is whether it is practically possible to move beyond ToJ while still maintaining any sort of societal consensus about the proper application of punishment. (This view puts me in roughly the same camp as Saul Smilansky, I suppose.)


  9. Boy, just don’t see the need for so much discussion. The medical facts are that there is literally no time for any subjective experience, all taking place in everyday language, to influence behavior. See the work of Paul Cizek. Behavior is “decided” in 140 ms completely outside of access to any subjective experience – in all animals.

    Further, if something like personal agency were biologically, medically meaningful – other animals would have it.

    What is there really to talk about? there is no medical, biological, physiological mechanism for this cultural concept. It is more magical thinking the central, false promise being “Mind over matter.” I, for one, posted on this many months ago and frankly my comments have always been censored.

    Everyday human language, mainly academic English, is not a fundamental biological process of the brain, of course.


  10. Thank you disagreeable-me and coel for your comments. While I am sympathetic to your conciliatory approach, most compatibilists do in fact set out to defend basic desert moral responsible. (The one exception may be Dennett—that’s why it’s often unclear that he is in fact a compatibilist.) Derk Pereboom defines basic desert moral responsibility as follows:

    “For an agent to be morally responsible for an action in this sense is for it to be hers in such a way that she would deserve to be blamed if she understood that it was morally wrong, and she would deserve to be praised if she understood that it was morally exemplary. The desert at issue here is basic in the sense that the agent would deserve to be blamed or praised just because she has performed the action, given an understanding of its moral status, and not, for example, merely by virtue of consequentialist or contractualist considerations.”

    It’s simply incorrect to say that most compatibilists would be happy embracing a consequentialist conception of punishment. Both libertarians and compatibilists want to justify basic desert moral responsibility—they disagree, however, on what is required for it. For what it’s worthy I should also point out that there are other conceptions of moral responsibility not threatened by free will skepticism. For example, Derk Pereboom persuasively argues in his new book Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life that free will skepticism is perfectly consistent with a forward-looking conception of moral responsibility grounded in future protection, future reconciliation, and future moral formation. This conception of moral responsibility is one I am completely happy to accept, but not the backwards-looking basic desert conception.


  11. I agree with DM here that the distinction between compatiblism and hard determinism never really made sense to me. At best, I’ve often leaned towards the hard determinism position because I have been told that compatiblism still allows for retributive justice or a sense of moral deserts that doesn’t make sense to me based on modern human behavioral sciences.

    Not only does it not make sense from a scientific perspective, I completely agree with Gregg that it is detrimental to progress as a society if we hold on to personal folk psychological views of ourselves as free and as a result, engage in retributive punishments that lead to worse outcomes. As an applied psychologists, I see this issue come up many times where the hardest part about helping people is convincing others that we can actually positively influence people’s lives because it does clash with their personal philosophy of human behavior. This view, IMO, is completely ignorant of psychological and biological basis of behavior and falls under “magic thinking” or science denial.

    However, I don’t think we can try to get people to accept it one giant bite, even though ultimately I think the disillusionment strategy is the best for the long run. There may very well be too much of a backlash if free will skeptics are too forward, as we have seen from historical examples such as B. F. Skinner’s attempts to bring this topic to the public (Beyond Freedom and Dignity). I think the better approach is to work towards changing practices in individual institutions, such as working to modify criminal justice practices slowly or working with schools to change educational practices. This strategy, from a clinical perspective, has been very successful in public health and education and hopefully will continue to influence other aspects of society.


  12. First, thanks for the article. It’s a good survey of various views on free will.

    In Darwinian terms, free will is a useful framework for thought. Each of us wants to find ways of furthering our survival, presuming that our thoughts can influence the results is a way of posing the survival problem to ourselves. Determinism aside, free-will is simply a way of describing activity – especially activity that cannot be pragmatically predetermined.

    As far as “moral responsibility” is concerned, we deal with individuals as moral beings for pragmatic reasons.


  13. You say: “free will skeptics do not deny we make choices or engage in acts of deliberation and reasoning. Rather, they hold that these acts themselves are the result of factors ultimately beyond the control of the agent.” That position seems incoherent to me, or at least inadequately defines what “we” means. If “we” really make choices, then how can they be beyond our control? Obviously we have reasons for making choices, but true agency seems (to me) to entail that the agent is a cause in itself. This does not require a transcendental soul, in a dualist or supernatural sense, but might involve the emergence of conscious agency taking into account causes that extend beyond matter and motion, to include meaning and purpose, as outlined here:


  14. @Bill Skaggs

    I like your idea of people having a Theory of Justice (ToJ), analogous with their Theory of Mind (ToM). But, depending on just how we understand that concept, I would question whether free will skeptics need to give it up.

    As I see it, ToM is not a proposition or set of propositions. It’s a stance people take up when understanding other people’s behaviour. I would say it’s broadly the same sort of thing as the Intentional Stance that Dennett talks of. I would then see our ToJ in the same way, as being a useful stance, not a set of propostions, and therefore it makes no sense to ask whether it is true or not. However, whereas the ToM and and Intentional Stance are epistemically useful, in that they help us understand the world and interact with it successfully, the ToJ is only socially useful, helping to regulate people’s behaviour in socially useful ways.

    As truthseekers we don’t want to accept untrue propositions. But that needn’t stop us from retaining a socially useful stance, even if that stance seems somewhat tainted by association with untrue propositions.

    That said, I suspect that the ToJ you have in mind does involve propositions, in which case I would question the appropriateness of your analogy with ToM.


  15. Gregg Your essay sounds somewhat similar to what I wrote here a few months back, but, not exactly the same, about free will and psychological determinism.

    I think that you don’t take Libet and others are enough, in that you still seem too focused on conscious-level actions, in part, rather than subconscious-level ones. It may be possible, as I argued, that we can at least speak of “something like free will” at a subconscious level.

    I also noted, as regular readers here may recall, that in addition to rejecting classical determinism, I said “mu” to viewing this as a matter of polarities between free will and something like it, versus psychological “determinism.” Rather, whether an action is primarily conscious, or more subconscious, it is likely to be on a sliding scale, rather than a polarity.

    For example, Action A would be 70 percent free will-30 percent psychological determinism. Action B would be 20 percent psychological determinism-80 percent free will.

    Do these ideas fit within any one of the schools you mentioned? I see this as tying very much with the likes of Baumeister, myself. It’s not quite his “occasional,” but it’s something similar, in that the free will end of the stick is stronger at some times, weaker at others. It could also be seen as tying into Kahnemann’s fast vs slow thinking. And, it could tie with him in another way, as well, since “fast” thinking is often subconscious, and thus this gets to my idea of subconscious free will, and also free will of subselves.

    That said, I do agree with Coel that compatibilism and libertarianism shouldn’t be lumped together. In fact, if one rejects classical determinism, one rejects the need to be compatible with it.


    As for the consequences, Gregg, I agree with some of your ideas.

    First, I think that even for people who are not religious but still defend free will, they do so based on ideas of guilt that ultimately stem from religion. In line with this, I again recommend Walter Kaufmann’s “Without Guilt and Justice.”

    Second, my idea of non-polarities does allow for “something like guilt” as much as it allows for “something like free will.” To the degree people are acting without old psychological constraints is the degree to which we can consider them “guilty.”


    As for other comments in general? Robin kind of gets at this, which gets back to my essay.

    This whole issue is not that simple. Per Occam’s eponymous device, we should make an issue like this as simple as we can, but no simpler. And, if “as simple as we can” isn’t very simple, then we need to accept that, too.

    And, that applies to all of consciousness.

    Whether or not it’s a “hard” problem in the way that the likes of Chalmers claims (and I disagree), we shouldn’t pretend that consciousness is not a complex problem, because it very much is.


  16. Dr. Caruso,

    Thanks for your article. I think I agree with you on many of the philosophical issues concerning free will and moral responsibility, and I agree that these beliefs have many pernicious effects. That being said, when it comes to the pragmatic question of whether we would be better off without these beliefs, I’m hesitant to share your optimism.

    First, though, I want to take issue with a point you made in your video that wasn’t in this article (perhaps it will show up in part 2). You directly link Americans’ belief in free-will and moral responsibility (and in the “self-made man”) with America’s out-of-control incarceration rate. But as you probably know, the American prison explosion is relatively recent (see, for example:, whereas the American belief in rugged-individualism is arguably as old as America itself. This suggests to me that the broken justice system that you’re talking about isn’t directly linked to the average American’s belief in free will, moral responsibility, and rugged individualism, but is rather due to a whole host of other problems with American politics, such as the “war on drugs”, the prison-industrial complex,prosecutors feeling a need to be “tough on crime” for fear of getting the Willie Horton treatment, and the general disproportionate political power of the wealthiest people in the country (who, of course, are rarely imprisoned and probably know few people who are, so they have little motivation to lobby for changes in prison policy).

    This is related to why I am hesitant to share your optimism: if we lived in an ideal world where people were generally rational and thoughtful, then I might agree that spreading skepticism about free will and moral responsibility would lead people to being less punitive and perhaps more humane to one another. But unfortunately people aren’t nearly so rational or consistent in the application of their beliefs. It seems quite plausible to me, for example, that people would selectively invoke free-will skepticism to excuse their own behavior, but would revert to their punitive judgmental attitudes when evaluating the behavior of other people (similar to the well-known “attribution error.”) And as I tried to show with the prison example, public policy doesn’t always track the philosophical beliefs of the average American very well.

    Of course, this is ultimately an empirical matter, and I’m just speculating.


  17. P.S. I’d like to clarify my reply to Bill Skaggs. Free will skeptics presumably want us to give up at least part of our normal ToJ, at least to the extent of moderating our retributive impulses. But I for one doubt that it’s either possible or desirable to eradicate our ToJ altogether. I think we should aim only to moderate it. So, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t talk of “mov[ing] beyond ToJ”, but perhaps some other skeptics would.


  18. Gregg,

    I’m glad to see many of my views on these matters are a lot more widespread than I thought.

    I definitely agree that a lot of our current beliefs on moral responsibility are noxious.

    I look forward to part two.


    I just watched the beginning of the video, very frustrating, just the tone unsettles me, sensationalistic, unjustified extrapolations; and the probable search (conscious or not) of monetary gain.


    “The most important question that free will skeptics need to answer is whether it is practically possible to move beyond ToJ while still maintaining any sort of societal consensus about the proper application of punishment”

    Why wouldn’t it be? What is the societal consensus about the proper application of punishment, is there one, is it coherent, and does it help or hinder the movement of society towards where it would like to be?

    But maybe foremost, why do we talk of *punishment* when we can talk of education, rehabilitation, conciliation, and if need be restraint and detention ?


  19. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments. Much appreciated. It’s going to be hard, however, for me to respond to everyone (especially tomorrow when I will be traveling). Here are just some quick replies for now:

    Joseph, thank you for reposting the article. Imazasirf, it sounds like we generally agree. Scott, we can talk in terms of degrees of autonomy and control instead of “free will” and “basic desert moral responsibility” and still preserve all that I think you want to preserve. Kevin, clearly there is a difference between an eye twitch and choosing to make a cup of coffee. Free will skeptics need not deny such obvious facts. Richardwein, I agree that free will skeptics need not give up the concept of justice. SocraticGadfly, thanks for the link to your paper. My views on the relationship between consciousness and free will are developed in my book—but as I said in my early post, that is not really the focus of this article. You may, however, be interested in checking out Neil Levy’s excellent new book—Consciousness and Moral Responsibility. It’s short but very interesting. It does sound like we agree on the consequences part—so that’s common ground. I’m not sure what you mean, however, by “something like guilt”? Does this justify retributive attitudes? If so, I think we disagree.


  20. Your argument is that it is better to be a slave than a free man. I agree with that for many people. Some people are happy with arranged marriages. Some people appear to lack the agency to take responsibility for the personal decisions. A good test might be to give people some bogus smoke-and-mirrors argument against free will. If they are persuaded, then they are obviously not competent to be making any important decisions.


  21. Gregg,
    To will is to determine.
    While we experience time as a sequence of events and so think of it as the present moving past to future, the actual process is dynamic change, ie, future becoming past. To wit, the earth isn’t traveling a fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns.
    Probability precedes actuality. While the laws governing the outcome of any event might well be deterministic, the input only arrives with its occurrence, as the speed of information is finite, so the outcome isn’t fully determined.
    So we weigh the factors and the result is our choice, not some random response. Yes, outside factors, as well as personal dispositions, affect our actions and the outcomes, but then if they didn’t, we would exist in isolation from any context and have no effect on it and it would have none on us. The objective paradigm views objects in isolation, but this removes them from the context which gives them meaning and uniqueness.
    Which leads to another assumption, that of an objective moral code, but good and bad are not a cosmic conflict between righteousness and evil. They are the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. Our moral and ethical codes are consequently constructed bottom up, as what makes our social structures stable and functioning.
    Reality is the dichotomy of energy manifesting form and form defining energy. Sometimes bottom up social energy is allowed freedom to expand and sometimes top down order is constrictive, depending on the space available. This also explains our neurological function, since consciousness acts as an energy, constantly pushing outward and thoughts are the forms it manifests. Which is our decision making process, as consciousness builds up and tears down these thought forms.
    While the left, linear side of the brain is presumably rational, it is also the rationalizing effect as well. As individuals, we need a viable navigational route through our environment and the narrative function of the left brain evolved from this and so we view sequence as primordial, but that is only our mortality talking.
    Yesterday didn’t cause today. The sun shining on a rotating planet creates this effect of days. Energy exchange, not sequence, is causal. The right side of the brain, the emotional, intuitive side, is scalar, much like a thermostat, or pressure gauge and so is another way of processing energy and the information carried. So when thoughts just seem to bubble to the surface, think teapot, not clock.


  22. I was going to link Kevin Mitchell’s post, but he beat me to it ( which is only fair since he did compose it 🙂 ).

    In general I don’t think the framing of the free will debate is especially helpful given that it presupposes some type of Cartesian duality. If there is no absolute grounding to the ‘I’ doing the ‘willing’ then I think the better line of inquiry is to detail the relationships in how our beliefs, motivations, desires etc… emerge.

    The post referred to research on how unconscious automatic processes play an important role in determining our actions which is undoubtably true. Research however also shows the role the anterior prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex play important roles in conscious monitoring and interrupting that fast automatic process. It is the interaction and integration of these fast & slow processes (already at a very aggregated level) that can inform how we can apply our (aggregated) selves towards the goal of aligning our automated beliefs, motivations, actions… with those we consciously would like to exhibit.

    The taoists defined the preferred state ‘wu-wei’ as one where the conscious mind did not interfere with an unconscious mind that is well alinged with it’s body, the environment and the task at hand. This would be compatible with optimistic skepticism of free will, but I think it is crucial not to underplay the role conscious inhibition plays in learning, developing skill, perhaps most importantly checking ones aggregated self against it’s bias for simple confirmation.


  23. @Disagreeable Me

    “As someone who vacillates between skepticism and compatibilism, it’s hard for me to see a substantial difference between the two.”

    I would suggest that’s because, once we set aside the subject of libertarian free will, the question “Do we have free will?” becomes an empty pseudo-question. I would say that compatibilists are misguided, in that they do see a question to be settled, and then come up with misguided definitions in order to answer that pseudo-question. However, you can’t define a pseudo-question into a real question. All you can do is replace the pseudo-question with a different question, allowing you to feel that, by answering the replacement question, you’ve answered the pseudo-question.

    Compatibilist definitions of “free will” usually reduce the claim that we have it to insignificance. 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. But that’s too obvious to be worth saying, so the compatibilist’s apparent feeling that he’s saying something worthwhile suggests that the definition has left out some indefinable extra that he really wants to express. That’s why I have reservations about accepting that the two sides differ only in language.

    That’s just “free will”. On the subject of “moral responsibility” I would say that there is a genuine question, in much the same way that there’s a genuine question as to whether we have libertarian free will. And I think the skeptical answer is the right one. But I for one don’t get there via determinism or free will. I think that attributions of moral responsibility cannot be true for similar reasons that other moral claims cannot be true. Having reached my conclusion about moral responsibility on grounds that have nothing to do with free will, I think I’m able to consider the question of free will more dispassionately, and see it for the pseudo-question that it is.

    It seems to me that compatibilists are often motivated more by a desire to say that we have “free will” and “moral responsibility” than by a desire to explain anything. What do these claims help explain? As I see it, philosophers should put more emphasis on explanation, and less on justification.


  24. Hi Gregg, your essay provides nice background material for the Free Will (FW) issue. It is clearly written and an enjoyable read, even for someone with some experience in this topic. By some experience I do not mean to suggest anywhere close to your level. Yikes my to-read list just got jammed up for the next year 🙂

    I look forward to the second part, where it seems there will be making more direct arguments. I sort of hoped the first section might be on evidence for/against FW itself, because as a compatibilist I have problems with how neuroscience data is presented on this topic. I am also with Coel and Socratic that it seems a mistake to lump compatibilism in with libertarianism, especially based on what % of compatibilists may or may not argue for deserts-based moral theories.

    But you have set out that you want to address the “consequences” of accepting (or rejecting) FW and so I will focus on that with you, though I think that last point may come up again in such discussions.

    That is except… one point mentioned by Neil and Kevin does confuse me. This seems an issue where incompatibilists (of whatever flavour) seem to be having it both ways. If arguments are being advanced because people are capable of deliberation, and so making choices, that seems to be using a compatibilist argument to rescue a hole in incompatibilist theory which desires to make the provocative sounding claim that “[decisions] themselves are the result of factors ultimately beyond the control of the agent.” What is the point in making any argument if the pertinent factors in any decision are beyond the control of the agent? And why say that “people decide or reason”, rather than “events have been decided I will say this and that in turn you will agree (or disagree)”? One “consequence” of accepting FW or not I hope you get into (it was not examined in your TEDtalk) is the results for language use.

    To Robin, Haynes spoke at a neuroscience conference I was at and your assessment “if Haynes et al’s experiment was described accurately then the audience would find it pretty underwhelming.” is accurate. From where I was sitting I looked at the stats he was providing and thinking, “slightly over 50% correlation is proof of predetermined action?” His words were not matching the stats on the screen. That is true even though I agree with determinism. At some points he seemed to be deliberately looking for a fight, but people just seemed unimpressed. In his defense, he was the last speaker and people were tired and hungry and so “pre-determined” to go home. They couldn’t help but be underwhelmed 🙂


  25. Richardwein your comments regarding compatibilists do not show familiarity with compatibilism.

    “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. ”

    While I wouldn’t argue that position as you put it, you seem to miss that our ability to reflect (at all) redefines our position as agents, compared to incompatibilist agents whose “locus of control” is defined totally outside themselves. Compatibilists use a different definition of free will which has yet to be undercut by incompatibilists, hence the need to argue for a practical reason to accept their view over ours.

    “It seems to me that compatibilists are often motivated more by a desire to say that we have “free will” and “moral responsibility” than by a desire to explain anything.”

    I always love incompatibilist accusations which appear to want to heap shame on compatibilists, while arguing that incompatibilism will move us beyond that way of thinking. Pray tell what desires motivate incompatibilists?

    And if compatibilists are excluded from motivations regarding “explanation” then surely incompatibilists are too since we are dealing with the same phenomenon (decision-making) and world-view (determinism).

    I was under the impression that compatibilists were attempting to explain how rational agents in a determined world come to make decisions independently from other agents, and in ways that defy a purely chemical neuron-fires due to chemical-physical input (devoid of further meaning for the agent) to physical output (mind being an epiphenomenal) mechanism.


  26. Dr. Caruso,
    Thank you for a lovely piece. The numerous citations and breakdown of the scholarly landscape are particularly appreciated.

    It seems to me that this (illusionist) philosophy is plagued by problem which follows philosophies positing a real level and a “really” real level. (Consider as a parallel: tables and chairs exist but only quantum waves “really” exist.) Your essay is full of phrases like “truly deserving” and “truly or ultimately morally responsible for their actions”. The question becomes, what makes the “really” real so special and why should we care? Marcus Aurelius knows the he has his character because of his parentage, class, tutors and the favors of the gods, but at the end of the day (literally at the end of each day) he still has to praise or blame himself for what he did that day. Is this “true” or “ultimate” praise or blame? I don’t know that it matters. The point is such moral self-appraisal (and appraisal of others) is inevitable. To that extent I find I cannot disbelieve in free will. Of course the illusionist may say he does not disavow such appraisal and assigning praise or blame, reward or punishment on this basis, but the more he does so, the more his view collapses into compatibilism.

    Of course you do give us a definite answer to what makes some volition “true” or “ultimate”. One is “truly” responsible if it is possible to “to hold them responsible in a non-consequentialist desert-based sense”. I think this is the little lever that turns the entire argument. You argued agents cannot be held so responsible. Here I have a hard time taking the illusionist at his word that he is actually going to behave in the way he prescribes. To do so we would have to admit that the way we treat toddlers and the severely mentally Ill is the way we ought to treat all persons. We would not recognize the autonomy of others or pay them the respect which goes with that autonomy. The illusionist claim gains plausibility as we lose sight of its radicality. We have to challenge ourselves to remember that this thinking would have to be carried into our friendships, work relation-ships and all of our daily lives. We do not take friends and colleagues as fellow rational actors to be held accountable but only manipulated one way or another according to our interests. Do we still have a way to assign praise and blame in the ordinary everyday sense? (“thank you for sticking up for me”, “you really let me down”,”I lost some respect for you”) Well then the privilege of your “real” or “ultimate” praise or blame is vanishing.

    There is a lot of grab-the-asprin kind of dissatisfaction with this debate right now. I think that is largely due to the failure of theorists to articulate an “optimistic” middle ground between full on free will and A Clockwork Orange (or B F Skinner). If you are going full on consequentialist desert, I find little to be optimistic about. If not I am sure you have adequately defined the middle way.


  27. Funnily enough, the consequences of wide acceptance of one view or the other are the last point I would be interested in. First, I want to know whether that view is correct, and then my assumption would usually be that we can make the best decisions if we are honest and accept the truth, no matter how unpleasant it is.

    An important aspect that seems to be missing from this summary and introduction, as it usually does from such discussions, is what the various factions view as the self. To my understanding, the supernatural/libertarian position sees the self as a little soul in supernatural control of the natural body – mind/body dualism. The compatibilist views the body as the self – monism. It is therefore that I as a compatibilist consider the neuroscientific studies cited above to be entirely irrelevant. My genes are me; my experiences are me; my subconscious is me; my neurons are me, and so on. Therefore I make decisions if they make the decisions.

    Finally, the incompatibilist sees the self as a little soul riding along in the body, having to watch helplessly while the body is pushed here or there by the laws of nature. Only under that view does a sentence like “my genes/subconscious/neurons made the decision for me” make any sense whatsoever. In other words, incompatibilists must be mind/body dualists just like the libertarian/supernatural free-willers for their position to be coherent. I would thus argue that the main division runs between compatibilists and the other two factions.

    Concerning folk views and suchlike, it also seems to me as if we have to make a difference between what people believe they believe or what they argue on an intellectual level on the one side and what they really believe as demonstrated through their behaviour on the other side. I would argue that nobody on this planet except perhaps a handful of very insane people truly believes in supernatural free will because if they did they would not be able to predict other people’s behaviour from past experience, but they constantly do. As demonstrated by their behaviour, everybody is really a determinist in practice.

    Similarly, all incompatibilists behave as if they could make decisions, and as if, and this is the core of the compatibilist position, there is an important difference between a collapsing wall killing somebody and another human killing somebody. By jailing the latter but failing to jail the wall, incompatibilists demonstrate that they are really compatibilists in practice. The whole discussion is a bit odd, just like the postmodernist view that we can never know anything even as the person advancing that view has confidence in the stability of the ground they are walking on.


  28. Hi Gregg,

    In general this approach seems strange, it almost seems like a consequentialist theory of truth. The suggestion seems to be that some group will decide whether or not to mislead me about free will depending upon the consequences of doing so.

    Personally I don’t think I am that easy to fool, but if one were to use a consequentialist approach to the truth, it seems counter productive to have the deliberations about it in public.

    Suppose you had come to the conclusion that the consequences of an illusionist approach were better than a disillusionist approach? Having had the discussion in public, the cat is somewhat out of the bag already. You could hardly say “please forget we ever had this discussion and go back to believing in libertarian free will”.


  29. Gregg

    Point 1: Maybe “retributive” is the wrong word. It’s arguable that it has definite connotative as well as denotative meaning. What if someone else, who even more strongly believed in free will of a classical style, talked about “responsible justice”?

    So, we may have, in part, a connotative semantic difference.

    As for “guilt” or “something like guilt,” I think we have enough of “something like free will” to see that “something like guilt,” or to use a less connotatively laden word, to see that “something like just desert,” does exist. Again, it seems that semantics may be involved, in part.

    That said, Kaufmann’s book … again, if you’ve not read it, along with others, I suggest it, rejects “retributive” AND “distributive” justice alike, on other grounds. People are individuals, and we cannot treat them like data points in population genetics, therefore there is no way of being “fair.”

    Thus, I can reject ideas of “justice” in general without even talking about free will or “something like free will.”

    I don’t mean to sidetrack us too far, but I think there is a question that needs to be asked here — is your concern more about free will, or is it more about what you call retributive justice? Because, again, the two aren’t that closely linked, not as I see it.

    Point 2: What do I mean by “something like free will”? I think we will find in the future that “something like free will” exists, but that it won’t be exactly what people call free will today. But, as I’ve said in comments here, and on that piece of mine here, and more, neuroscience is at best in the Early Bronze Age. It’s going to be a LONG time before we can get a lot more scientific information to guide us down this path.

    And, when we do? Back to my closing statement on my first comment. We’ll find that, though consciousness may not be a “hard” problem like Chalmers claims, it’s going to be a difficult one indeed scientifically — and thus will be a difficult one indeed, philosophically, too.

    So, again, I can’t say more than “something like free will.” Is this just a faith-based claim, though? I think not. To reference ethology, as we see higher and higher levels of intelligence, we see more and more conscious behavior, including second order thinking, and maybe bits of third-order thinking in the most intelligent non-human animals.

    A lot of this relates to consciousness as an emergent property. Again, neuroscience will have a long road to hoe until it can say a lot about that, and may never say everything we’d like about that.

    I’m doing the best I can within honest Wittgensteinian limits as I see them.

    RichardWein Again, I feel totally the opposite. Once we dispense with classical determinism, non-compatiblist versions of free will, or so


  30. If I am to be disillusioned about some belief I have then we had better be a little more clear about what it is that I am supposed to belief and what I should believe instead, after I have been disillusioned.

    First I set up the following scenario:

    At time T1 I become aware of two epistemically possible alternatives: A1 and A2.
    At time T2 I either do A1 or A2
    At time T3 one of two states of affairs obtains S1 or S2 depending, respectively on whether I did A1 or A2

    Libertarianism says that neither S1, nor S2 was inevitable before T2 and that A1 or A2 is my intentional decision.
    Determinism says that one of S1 or S2 was already inevitable before T2, although I did not know which.
    Non deterministic, non libertarianism says that neither S1 nor S2 was necessarily inevitable before T2 but that A1 or A2 did not depend upon my intentional decision.

    Let’s take Determinism first. Suppose the actions in question are to click “OK” or “Cancel” on a screen dialog. As I look at the screen deciding which to press it seems to me that I could do either but on the theory of determinism this is an illusion. One of these actions is already impossible for me. It is just an illusion that I am deciding, rather I am waiting to find out which action is going to happen because that has already been decided.

    So I ask – how long before T2 was the action inevitable? An hour? A day? A century? Was it inevitable at the big bang that this circumstance would arise and that I would click a particular button?

    If the determinist cannot answer the question, even a ballback time, then how does he/she know that the theory is true?

    Personally I would like to see the science behind this claim.

    Next let’s look at non-deterministic non libertarianism. This says that neither state of affairs was necessarily inevitable before T2, but that the question of whether A1 or A2 was done did not depend upon my conscious decision.

    Again this theory pans out two ways. The first is the claim that all actions are initiated by the unconscious brain and that our feeling of making a decision comes after the actual decision has been made. I have already pointed out an objection to the claim that all actions come from the unconscious mind.

    The second way this pans out is to say that the matter of whether A1 or A2 is done depends upon microscopic events which are beyond our control. This depends upon the claim that macro states are always sensitively dependent upon micro states and I suggest that this is patently not the case. But then again it is not my burden (as an agnostic about free will) to show this.

    If I am to be “disillusioned” then let the case be made, not just assumed.


  31. Iqrvy, thanks for your insightful comments. I agree that the American prison explosion is a more recent phenomenon—largely arising in the 80’s with the “war on drug,” mandatory sentencing, and the tough-on-crime movement. These movements, however, may not have separate causes but may just be more modern manifestations of some of the attitudes I discuss in my TEDx talk (by-products of just deserts, Just World Belief, and a blame-the-victim approach). Prior to that, it’s likely that these attitudes were just manifested in different ways (e.g., the revenge justice of the wild-west).

    Seth, there is no reason to think that the skeptical arguments of Pereboom, Levy, Strawson, etc. are presupposing “Cartesian duality.” You might be right, however, about some of the neuroscientific arguments against free will. Dualism is definitely lurking in the arguments of Libet and Wegner.

    Brandholm, thank you for your comments. I’m not sure what you mean, though, when you say free will skeptics are using a compatibilist argument to rescue a hole in incompatibilist theory.” What you go on to say after that—i.e., why talk about people deciding or reasoning instead of “events having been decided” etc.—can just as easily be directed at compatibilists. Either agent-level language is justified or not, and therefore both compatibilists and incompatibilists are justified in its use or not. The free will skeptic need not disagree with the compatibilist that there are different levels of reasons-responsiveness, that there is a difference between addicts and non-addicts, etc. and *still* argue that these distinctions are not enough to ground basic desert moral responsibility. Of course, I didn’t present the argument against compatibilism in this paper (since that’s not its purpose)—but the arguments can easily be found throughout the literature (see Pereboom’s four case argument, the Basic Argument, the Consequence Argument, the Manipulation Argument, etc).

    David Ottlinger, I think we would simply disagree on your central assumption: that its impossible (and undesirable) to live without the reactive attitudes. My views with regard to the reactive attitudes are very similar to Derk Pereboom’s so I would just direct you to his two excellent books.

    Alexander, the reason I’m interested in the pragmatic question of disbelief in free will is (as I’ve said) because much focus has been given lately to the pragmatic dangers of adopting free will skepticism (see Vohs and Schooler 2008; Baumesiter, Masicampo and Dewall 2009; Saul Smilansky 2000; and recent comments from Daniel Dennett). The pragmatic dispute is therefore an interesting one in and of itself. For example, a recent study by Shriff et. al (2014) found that by simply having students take an undergraduate course in neuroscience (with no mention of free will) reduced their free will belief. It’s an important question, then, what affects this would have and whether it would be (on the whole) a good or bad thing to reduce peoples beliefs in free will. Furthermore, the dispute is important to the disagreement between illusionists and disillusionists.

    BTW, I may not be able to respond for a while because of holiday traveling.


  32. I find it curious that current free will discussions do not comment on the determinism-is-self-defeating arguments. Even if flawed, they deserve some attention. They vary a good bit in detail, but the best one I’ve seen is James N. Jordan, “Determinism’s Dilemma,” Journal of Metaphysics, Sept 1969. The gist is: If determinism is true, then our reasoning about determinism (and anything else) is untrustworthy because we’re merely thinking what we’re predetermined to think is correct, whether it is or not! This doesn’t show that determinism is false – only that IF it’s true, then we can’t have good reasons either for or against it – or anything else, including moral responsibility.
    Opponents may respond: if determinism is incorrect, then please provide a viable theory (with evidence) for what IS correct! But in order to show that a position or theory is wrong, one is not required to be able to explain what is right! Although it would be nice if one could.


  33. Meta Will Guides Free Will
    Whenever an action is taken, it turns out to be dependent of some context, often cultural, or some preparation, often neurological, or some ulterior motives, often self-aggrandizing. In other words, free will is never free of contingence.

    So what? This just show that the expression “Free Will” depicts the wrong semantics. After all, we are not free to stop breathing. In theory, yes. In practice, it is impossible, except if we carefully prepare a mechanism that will take over (a lot of sleeping pills, or a noose).

    The problem of suffocation suggests that, if we want to be more free (for example free to stop breathing), we have to make the environment take over. Thus Free Will has to operate not just on “us”, but on the environment which controls us.

    This is why philosophers’ Free Will have led them to the desert, since times immemorial. In the desert, freedom of thought.

    Quantum Physics helps here. It is non-local. Actually some physicists are in the process to make really sure of that, by running entanglement experiments with haphazard impulses coming from the opposite sides of the universe.
    Intriguingly, if the experiment turns out as expected, this variant of the famed Einstein-Podolski-Rosen Thought Experiment will show that local Free Will cannot exist. But, once again, so what? Free Will is obsolete, Meta Will is what one can help to free, by controlling more the contexts we think in.

    The soul is most probably some sort of large scale Quantum effect. How do Quantum processes work? They extract solutions from geometry, or, more generally, form. Non-local geometry, and non-local form.

    Thus, if we want to achieve soul control, we need to achieve geometrical and topological control on our environment. And this starts by being conscious that those control our outcomes.

    Thus, instead of just talking about our morality, we have to start talking about the environment in which it is supposed to blossom, as the later will control the former. Thus individual responsibility shifts more to social contexts.

    And therefore, the systems of thoughts which support social structures are the agents most responsible. This is where much of Free Will is hiding.

    Example: A deplorable mentality ruled Germany, for generations. Its characteristic unquestioned discipline constricted what Teutonic Free Will could be. In turn this mentality allowed dictators to make the German armies behave in atrocious ways for generations (differently from the armies of other Western nations, which did not engage in systematic war crimes).

    That unfortunate character of the German soul, this lack of Free Will, killed 22 million in extermination camps alone: it enabled fascist, racist, robotic dictatorships (Second & Third Reich), and the education they provided with (as Nietzsche and Einstein pointed out, and condemned stridently).

    German genetics did not change much. Yet, present day German wills are completely different. They have become French wills, so to speak. They are sister souls for Republican France against old German fascism. German Free Will has blossomed.


  34. Dr. Caruso,
    You seem to be defining ‘free-will skepticism’ as something different from ‘hard determinism,’ but appropriating the label clearly elides the evident fact that many compatibilists are skeptical of free-will positions as well. I for one would rather give the term ‘free will’ entirely over to libertarians, since many compatibilist positions are really about the problem of choice as an event rather than ‘ensouled’ decision-making. As a social determinist I am impelled to compatibilism because social interaction heavily weights our choices, but in a manner so complex as to be sometimes unpredictable. (Predictability is an important factor in evaluating any determinist position, and a problem that has to be accounted for in the theory itself. I haven’t seen that discussion from incompatibilists yet.)

    In the context, I really have no concern for the question of “desert moral responsibility.” That’s after and elsewhere. I’m not sure we can get to that discussion through this one; as others have noted one can discuss that question without ever engaging this one.

    Hard determinists are clearly making the demand, ‘accept determinism to get rid of retributive justice, ‘ and that is a false necessity. The question concerning choice and determinism involves issues of ontology, epistemology, and psychology; I don’t see ethics necessarily implicated whatsoever. Can we imagine a hard determinist denying a need for any “humanizing effect on our practices and policies?” Easily.

    Where did this “humanizing” come from, by the way? When did we choose to “humanize” anything, and why? This is political rhetoric within a liberal democracy; it could be useless in another culture. “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 (…)” – as a social determinist, it sounds to me that all Waller is saying is that we need more advanced methods of *social* control, eliminating stochastic variance of behavior and random response to social events. That may be right, but I would need to see that argument. And I might disagree; John Dewey was a social determinist and argued that we needed tolerance for experimentation to allow for greater randomness of social response, in order to develop a healthy democracy.

    It’s interesting that you effectively hold libertarianism and compatibilism as two sides of the same coin (as most incompatibilists do) while (quite effectively) delineating subtle differences between incompatibilist positions. But there are profound differences in the compatibilist positions espoused by such as Marx, Dewey, Foucault, or as we find it in Jesuit education theory, or even in Stoicism or Buddhism – not only concerning analysis, but methodology of usefulness and possible desired results.

    I know some incompatibilists would prefer compatibilism would just go away. Thus we hear the claim that we are arguing in bad faith or are closet libertarians. One reason I prefer a compatibilist position is that it allows me openness to the possibility I might be wrong. Ideological conformity and rigidity close off too many interesting possibilities.


  35. Joel McKinnon,
    The problem is that the sciences needed to describe this process convincingly is nowhere near the level of completeness to describe this process. The hypothetical model you give us is just as readily described by behaviorist psychology not requiring neuroscience – or incompatibilism.

    Kevin Mitchell,
    Thank you for your remark – and for the link to your blog post. I find that your description there is richer than the one that incompatibilists seem to rely on. And I was suprised that Dr. Caruso responded so lightly (“clearly there is a difference between an eye twitch and choosing to make a cup of coffee. Free will skeptics need not deny such obvious facts.”), that doesn’t address the incoherence you point out.

    We will see what Dr. Caruso has to say in part 2. However, my sense of the incompatibilist political agenda is that it is naive. We know now that the US government practiced torture systematically for some 6 years, and these are the people intellectuals will persuade to a more humanistic justice system – by convincing them that there is no free will?

    In the past 35 years, there has been a profound regress in public thinking on a range of issues, from race relations to criminal justice; but it is hard to see how adding this debate to the mix is going to advance any social causes.

    Seth Leon,
    I think this is well put and makes a good case without a lot of technicalities.

    You raise an interesting point, which Dr. Caruso addressed with what I see as a technicality; our language is embedded with agent/agency descriptors. It’s not clear that we can be rid of the empirical intuition of freewill without rewriting the language we use. (This clarifies in Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn’s comment incompatibilist concerning discussion of what “*my* genes/subconscious/neurons” do.)

    Hal Morris,
    Thank you for bringing up George Ainslie. I have read up on him. I do think more sophisticated versions of behaviorial anaysis over time are pertinent to this discussion.

    Robin Herbert,
    “it almost seems like a consequentialist theory of truth” – that does seem one trajectory here, especially since incompatibilists seem to insist that their theory is married to a theory of justice; but we’ll have to see where part 2 takes us.

    Frank Williams,
    I think you’re making a good point; though I must say that as a social determinist/compatibilist, I don’t feel the need to have my theory entirely trustworthy; it seems to work; but I allow that it could be wrong.


  36. Nice article, thank you very much, Gregg.

    We should develop a concept for coexisting determinism shared between nature (as a primary cause or quality) and morality (as a secondary, or codependent cause or quality) that isn’t so apparently susceptible to paradox as the persisting contrast between determinism and indeterminism. I do not believe that libertarianism, as a political theory, is historically applicable beyond common sense realism (in approach to language and meaningful reasoning), and doesn’t easily blend with metaphysical questions that shape a worldview. This could be political prejudice, since I favor liberalism over libertarianism (and check it like an addiction for politics), but only because emphasis on moral consent achieves something like the cynicism we previous discussed here.

    Determinism presents a fascinating subject for philosophy, for philosophers (in the field of metaphysics). Metaphysical prejudices result from research and learning, and it is both difficult and necessary to not appear extreme about it, but I prefer determinism, too, particularly what I refer to as co-determinism. Choice of definitions is peculiarly deterministic in this preference of mine (or prejudice), but language can be used incorrectly (which would seem to motivate logic as an exercise in discovering reliably correct reasoning).

    Determinism (which consists of moral determinism, although confused as solely natural determinism) and its polar contrasting opposite, indeterminism (contrariwise consisting of irresponsible moral determinism, although confused as natural indeterminism) makes the metaphysical dilemma inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, nature is very evidently deterministic, whereas morality seems verisimilitudinous and vicarious (indeterminist), rather than autonomous (co-determinist). I think co-determinism (moral qua natural) seems more apt to describe morality than sheer indeterminism, but that determinism better describes reality than morality does.


  37. Quick followup: if there is any question about my favorite word, which I have yet only used once before, rather than appear to play with words, the word “verisimilitudinous” simply means that a true statement is ultimately only a very close synonymy (which is desirable, particularly when conversing in other than native language; and, I think this applies across separate disciplines as well).


  38. Coel wrote:

    There are sensible and good accounts of “moral responsibility” that are non-realist, such as referring to consequentialism.


    Consequentialism is a realist theory of moral obligation, not an anti-realist one.

    Anti-realist moral theories are typically sentimentalist or emotivist.


  39. {{Free will skeptics do two things:

    (1) They assert that we have no ability to make choices;
    (2) They attempt to persuade us to make the choice of accepting free will skepticism.

    I see these as contradictory.}}

    Neil Rickert, I’m a hard determinist and I also lack belief in the existence of “free will”. But clearly I can make choices for example I can select between tea and coffee. But so could a robot make a choice based on preprogrammed instructions; your premise is false.


  40. Gregg, sorry I knew that the issues I mentioned were directed more toward another portion of the FW debate, rather than the one you are addressing here. However I feel that there are consequences (theoretical and practical) regarding language use that emerges from accepting incompatibilist/skeptic positions compared to compatibilism. I was about to explain myself, but realized that would simply extend the off topic argument.

    So I will read over articles in your list (esp. the one you recommended to me), wait for your next essay, and limit discussion to the practical consequences you are considering. As it happens, I think you are pointing up very real problems from over-emphasizing/relying on FW when looking for blame/solutions. So I’m not likely to press you as hard on that topic. The “self-made man” delusion in particular is something I’ve encountered too much and it is corrosive to finding real economic solutions.

    However, I now intend to write an essay (pref for SS) that will tackle the other part of the FW debate, and flesh out what I was getting at regarding language use, and use of neuroscience data in defining compatibilism v incompatibilism. I’ve definitely seen language use from some incompatibilists/skeptics that are not meaningful or available to compatibilist theory, due to its “ultimate” reductionism. Indeed, the vision of us put forward by some as being “meat puppets” I find equally corrosive on so many levels. It’s possible you have issues with that “brand” of incompatibilism as well.

    Anyway, I look forward to your next essay and wish you fun and relaxation on your vacation!

    To David and Alexander, I liked your replies and empathize with the nature/focus or your concerns. It is tough to hold oneself to a debate on consequences when a theoretical issue feels unaddressed/resolved, and perhaps another set of consequences left out. Still, I think it is useful to consider the problems of taking FW too far when looking at societal level issues. I think many people equate belief in FW (compatibilist or other) with some sort of “rugged individualism”, or at least that FW supports such approaches. It may be useful to counter that notion as compatibilists.


  41. causa sui: What is the line between cause and effect, between before and after, the here and the now? What is now? And if it cannot be determined or scientifically measured, then the cause of Oneself is the effect of Oneself, and One is the other and the other just One. Science measures and divides, truth unites. And as for mathematics, I’ve encompassed everything within reason and found there is a mathematical system that is complete. Truth is complete.
    Free at last, =


  42. Gregg One footnote gets at a key issue of both essays, and I didn’t have room for it on my first comment on the second essay.

    You say:

    [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).

    But WHY is such a stance “controversial”? Although Kaufmann doesn’t discuss free will in his book, I’m sure he’d probably hold to something like that. Given that it does kind of undercut some of your ideas, I think this “why” needs further explication.

    Otherwise, I agree with David Ottinlinger. The use of “truly” and other words comes a bit close to special pleading.

    There’s another point, related to folk psychology. You of course are entertaining the idea that folk psychology about “free will” is wrong. What if folk psychology about “morality” is also wrong?

    For that matter, what if the philosophical history about “morality” is also wrong? What if, like it or not, some point say, 200 years down the road, cognitive neuroscience tells us we need to do a lot more rethink than you’re proposing in this essay?

    Some of this part of the essay sounds like trying to have your morals cake while eating the sweet cream frosting of non-punitive criminology. As I note in more depth on my first comment on your second essay, there seems to be a fair amount of political science thinking behind all of this, and, I think the free will cart got put ahead of the political science horse.

    I think some disentanglement is probably needed.

    The history of American criminology has factors beyond free will. As you hint in your second essay, Social Darwinism may be one of them. Race is certainly another.

    Whether certain types of US conservatives — and per my comment on your second essay, let’s remember that not all US conservatives may be alike, and they’re certainly not totally like conservatives elsewhere in the developed world — use ideas about free will as an attempt to justify harsh moral actions, or certain criminal stances such as the War on Drugs, is a second issue.

    After all, many people may justify harsh criminology on pragmatic grounds. (Whether their pragmatism is correct or not is, of course, another point.)

    Anyway, seeing the second essay up this morning made it clearer for me.

    I see your real concerns as being about punishment, especially in criminology. We’re talking political science first and free will second.

    I’d encourage other commenters to approach these essays the same way.


  43. ejwinner I had a question regarding your reply to Joel McKinnon. What exactly would be convincing scientific evidence that would adequately describe the process for you? It seems to me that one can always keeping shifting this requirement to another area of human behavior once one is explained (free will of the gaps?).

    I would argue that looking at the current state of neuroscience and psychology, we already have enough evidence to show that what we do is function of our environment and genes and there is no reason to doubt, barring technological or ethical limitations, that research in these fields will continue to expand.


  44. Hi Aravis,

    Consequentialism is a realist theory of moral obligation, not an anti-realist one. Anti-realist moral theories are typically sentimentalist or emotivist.

    That’s partly why I worded my sentence vaguely as “… such as referring to consequentialism”.

    I see consequentialism, in the end, as inevitably non-realist. That’s because, at the end of the day, someone has to pronounce on whether a consequence is desirable or not, and that can only be a subjective opinion. Thus consequentialism collapses into sentimentalism or emotivism.

    But then I see deontological ethics likewise — at the end of the day, someone has to decide what the rules are, and that can only be a subjective opinion. Ditto, virtue ethics — at the end of the day, someone has to decide what is a virtue and what is not, and that can only be a subjective opinion. This is partly why I see moral realism as a non-starter.

    But, from previous interactions, I suspect that we see things differently on this topic!

    On the specific point relevant to this thread, I think we can have a good and coherent account of “moral responsibility” in terms of social contracts between humans, each with their desires and values (an account which is also compatibilist and determinist). I don’t think one should cede the terms “moral” and “moral responsibility” to the libertarians or the moral realists, which the OP tended to do.


  45. Coel, it strikes me as really interesting that you simply take it upon yourself to redefine well established notions in philosophy to suit your particular worldview. Consequentialism and deontology, as Aravis pointed out, are realist moral philosophies, no matter how much mental gymnastic you engage to argue otherwise.


  46. imzasirf,
    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.

    This may involve more than science can deliver; it would have to crack the code if there is one, that genes use to determine behavior – if they do. Then adequate description of precise neuronal activity in the brain during behavior would be useful – adequate, for instance, to explain while two seemingly conflicting neuronal events lead to either one dominating, or a third emerging to efface the conflict.

    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.

    Finally, and this is the hardest part I should think, a description of social activity – which forms the greater part of our external stimuli and response – would need to be provided to account for its complexity, indeterminacy of particular events, and historic change, especially rapid change. (It is interesting to note that most Western social determinist theories begin in analysis of some social or political revolution – in other words, with analysis of collective event choices that transgress the social stability that should be the norm if social behavioral controls are in place and working normatively. But given a breakdown of such social controls, revolutions should be completely predictable – but they’re not, their occurrence and their outcomes are probabilistic. One of the problems for any determinism is that socially, every individual a given subject interacts with is a new variable presenting a host of stimuli, sometimes leading to unpredictable, or only loosely predictable, response. Yet any determinism tends to concentrate on the behavioral predictability of the individual just as such. Social determinism thus begins with this as a problem, rather than as background noise, and thus must admit the occasional unpredictable choice event in a social context, and allow this to require theoretical explanation.

    Again, I think we should probably abandon the term ‘free will’ to libertarians; my problem is not one of finding a place for free will, my problem is finding explanations for events hard determinism cannot account for – and I’m willing to add ‘yet’ to that, since I’m aware that the research continues.


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