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We think that what happens in the future depends upon what happens now in a way the past does not. Lewis attempted to explain this as in terms of the temporal asymmetry of counterfactual dependence. On Lewis theory, counterfactuals describe worlds with pasts like ours save a miracle-- a violation of our laws-- has made the antecedent true. At our world, he says, the future overdetermined the past. This makes for an "asymmetry of miracles" which explains the counterfactual asymmetry. But Lewis's account fails. His account of counterfactuals is circular and his explanation of asymmetry self-contradictory. Jonathan Bennett's Simple Theory of counterfactuals does not involve miracles: it supposes counterfactuals describe worlds where the antecedent comes about as a result of differences in the past. Because it roots counterfactuals in laws, Bennett's theory allows us to explain temporal asymmetries as the result of the logical irreversibility of natural laws. Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2017 at
... there is widespread confusion about what ‘determinism’ means. Certainly the standard textbook definitions are wrong. Wrong in the way that definitions are wrong: they don't capture what anyone really means by the term. Continue reading
Posted Jul 30, 2016 at
with Terrance Tomkow Consider this possible world. w1 It’s a world in which signals appear at the left at time t1 and emerge on the right at t2. The dark circles indicate the presence of a signal; an empty circle, the absence. w1 is a very simple world. It is governed by one simple law. (L1) It is nomologically necessary that: (A and B) ≡ C We can describe its workings with a simple truth table using T or F to indicate the presence or absence of a signal. The rows represent all the combinations of events that the Law... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2015 at
The Dispositional Compatibilist provides a further, positive argument for commonsense compatibilism by showing how our commonsense beliefs about free will are compatible with our beliefs about the natural world and our place in it, in a way that is not contingent on the falsity of determinism Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2015 at
We've got free will. I'm able to raise my arm -- I just did. Now I'm not doing it. But I'm still able to do it. And it isn't just true that I'm able to raise my arm even when I'm not raising it; it's also true that I'm able to choose to raise my arm even when I'm not choosing to do it. And the same goes for lots and lots of other things that we don't do but can do. We are able to do much more than we actually do. We have unexercised abilities, unexercised powers of... Continue reading
Posted Nov 13, 2014 at
Dan Dennett reviews Alfred Mele’s new book Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will in October’s Prospect magazine. In the book Mele sets himself the task of explaining in terms accessible to everyone why recent highly publicized discoveries in neuroscience and psychology do not show, as some have claimed that "free will is an illusion". Dennett thinks Mele accomplishes his goal. As Dennett notes, it is an important part of Mele's strategy to demonstrate that one need not take sides on the grand philosophical debate about free will to understand why the scientific "dis-proofs" are bunk. The grand philosophical debate... Continue reading
Posted Oct 18, 2014 at
On p. 162 of Causation: A User's Guide, Paul and Hall present a neuron diagram which they call a 'black-box case' and use it to argue that it refutes Lewis's Influence account and also teaches important lessons about causation. (The lessons: Don't jump to conclusions about causation until you know there are no further facts about internal causal structure. Don't assume that what is presented as a case of trumping is what it claims to be, rather than a case of overdetermination.) I don't dispute their second claim; I think they are right to challenge the assumption that the "trumped"... Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2014 at
ABSTRACT: Some philosophers who defend the claim that there is a morally significant difference between killing and letting die (doing and allowing harm) rest their arguments on a controversial claim in the metaphysics of causation: that omissions cannot be causes. Not wanting to let our moral theory be thus hostage to metaphysics, Tomkow and I defended an account of "the Dif" which does not assume this. We did not deny that when Baker stands by, twiddling his thumbs while a child drowns, his failure to save the child may be an action, an event, and a cause of the drowning.... Continue reading
Posted Jun 27, 2014 at
I was recently asked, by Sofia Bonicalzi, to answer seven questions about free will and moral responsibility as part of a forthcoming special issue of a new online philosophy journal, Methòde . She has invited 29 philosophers to share their views, so it should be quite interesting! The issue will be published in October; my answers to the questions can be found below. 1. Much of the recent discussion concerning the problem of free will has been centered on the compatibilism/incompatibilism dichotomy. Do you think the central role attributed to this dichotomy is well deserved? If so, which of the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 13, 2013 at
The impulses that tempt us to think that determinism robs us of free will are mistakes -- mistakes about the metaphysics of causation, mistakes about the nature of laws, and mistakes about the logic of counterfactuals. Continue reading
Posted Oct 21, 2012 at
David, thanks for your comment. I think the case of the perfect prophet is different from time travel. I agree that the person who tries, unsuccessfully, to refute his laundry list predictions may be justified in believing, not only the indicative but also the counterfactual. But this doesn't show that the counterfactual is true, nor does it show that we, who know better, are justified in believing that the counterfactual is true. I've written about this in a book I've just finished writing about the free will/determinism problem and I will do a post on it soon.
Toggle Commented Oct 9, 2011 on Time Travel: Horwich vs. Sider at
... confusing counterfactual with indicative conditionals can muddle our thinking about time travel. In this post I offer, as a case in point, Ted Sider’s criticisms of Paul Horwich and me. Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2011 at
My argument is that a Time Traveler cannot kill her baby self, even if she travels back in time, heavily armed and finds her baby-self undefended, right in front of her, even if, that is anyone else similarly armed in the same position could kill the baby. Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2011 at
1) No one can do something (i.e. has the ability to do that thing) if it is always true that: if they tried to do it they would fail. 2)It is always true of Suzy, the Time traveller, that if she had tried to kill herself as a baby, she would fail. Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2011 at
I defend my argument that the Time Traveller cannot kill her baby self I want to explain why it wouldn't matter -- so far as the possibility of time travel is concerned -- if I turned out to be guilty, as charged, of fatalism. Continue reading
Posted May 25, 2011 at
There are two different objections to time travel that are not always distinguished (or not distinguished carefully enough). I call these objections the 'Changing the Past' objection and the 'Freedom Contradiction' objection. Continue reading
Posted May 8, 2011 at
I'm interested in the philosophically interesting kind of time travel, by which I mean time travel to the one and only actual past, and, in particular, to your past, to the time when your parents were children, or to the time when you were a baby. Continue reading
Posted May 7, 2011 at
Hi Cihan, Thanks for reading! I have five (or maybe even six) more blog posts on this topic coming up. Stay posted!
Frankfurt noted that all parties to the traditional debate about the compatibility of free will and moral responsibility with determinism had subscribed to a common assumption. They had assumed the truth of something Frankfurt called “the Principle of Alternate Possibilities”, which he expressed as follows: (PAP) A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. In the traditional debate incompatibilists had argued that if determinism is true, then no one could ever have done otherwise, while compatibilists argued that there is a morally relevant sense in which even a deterministic agent could... Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2010 at
Why does it matter whether we have free will? Common sense and tradition say that it matters because free will is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of having the kinds of choices that we care about. Continue reading
Posted Jul 15, 2010 at
Thanks to all who attended the Pacific APA session on “Classic Compatibilism” with myself, Bernard Berofsky, Randy Clarke, and Al Mele, and thanks especially to Joe Campbell for organizing and chairing. As always at these things, there wasn’t enough time so I thought I’d use the blogosphere to round out... Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2010 at Flickers of Freedom
Thanks to all who attended the Pacific APA session on “Classic Compatibilism” with myself, Bernard Berofsky, Randy Clarke, and Al Mele, and thanks especially to Joe Campbell for organizing and chairing. As always at these things, there wasn’t enough time so I thought I’d use the blogosphere to round out the discussion. Dispositions and Classic Compatibilism I'll begin with a few remarks about a view that Berofsky calls 'Dispositional Compatibilism", which he attributes to me and says is mistaken. I admit that I once wrote a paper with the deliberately provocative title "Free Will Demystifed: A Dispositional Account". However, I... Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2010 at
Justin and Randy, There may indeed be many different senses of 'can' or 'is able'. However, the question that I asked, in the post that started this comment thread, was: In which, if any, of these senses, does determinism have the consequence that we are *never* able to do otherwise? Mark, Contrary to what you say, I am not interested in "analyzing the concept of free will". I am not trying to do "conceptual analysis", whatever that is supposed to be. I'm trying to find out what, if anything, we are talking about when we talk about "free will". That is, I'm interested in what the term refers to, not what it "means" (whatever that means), and I am particularly interested in the question of whether the term refers to anything at any deterministic world. I believe that it does; my incompatibilist opponent says that it does not. I want to know: Why not? Kevin, The danger with metaphors is that they can beguile us into thinking we know what we are talking about . You say you "define" the robustness requirement as follows: "Robustness Requirement: an alternative possibility is ‘robust’ only if the presence of that alternative possibility is relevant for moral responsibility in some way beyond merely pointing out that determinism is false. " But do alternative possibilities "point at" anything? Does "point at" mean "entail"? How can the truth or falsehood of determinism ever be "irrelevant" to moral responsibility if incompatiblism is true? Does the presence of *any* alternative possibility "point out" that determinism is false or do only some kinds of alternatives do that? Without clarification on these points, no one can be sure what you are talking about. All this talk about "robust"' versus "non-robust" "alternative possibilities" could easily be avoided. As I noted earlier, the Principle of Alternate Possibilities is, despite its name, a principle about ability, not possibility. Michael (Mark, Thomas, and probably others), But I never claimed that we should eliminate all metaphors from language or that the metaphors invoked in free will discussions are always empty. On the contrary, I think that the "forking paths" and "adding to the past" metaphors evoke assumptions about the nature of time: the idea that we "move" through time in something like the way we move along a path and the idea that we "move" through time by literally adding to the sum total of reality. If these assumptions are part of the argument, they should be made explicit, for they are highly controversial. My point was only that we should not rely on undischarged metaphors when we are giving a philosophical argument. With respect to 'flickers of freedom', and 'non-robust' or 'miniscule' alternative possibilities, my point was that these metaphors are typically used in ways that obscure significant distinctions: e.g. the distinction between an 'alternative possibility' that consists of a blush and an alternative possibility that consists of a person's deciding or choosing to act otherwise. In any case, the issue is not whether it's possible that the person does otherwise. The issue is whether the person is able to do otherwise. John, Your way of "conceptualizing the enterprise" of philosophical dispute seems to me incoherent. You say we shouldn't think of it as trying to persuade one another. You say we should thinking of it as "seeking to persuade (or perhaps simply move in the right direction ) a fair-minded and reasonable agnostic (someone not already decisively committed one way or another)”. But if the " fair-minded agnostic" is "reasonable", then she is going to be moved "in the right direction" only by *argument* . And if the agnostic is moved by an argument for either side, it is going to have to be by her accepting as true or probable the premises of that argument. But if they are premises that both sides would accept, the agnostic has no role to play; since the canons of validity are not open to dispute, both sides can talk directly to one another. On the other hand, if the premise is one the other side does not, and has no reason to, accept, then the so-called agnostic's acceptance of it demonstrates that she wasn't really fair-minded: her willingness to accept that premise is ipso facto proof of bias. If you *really* have no expectation that we can persuade one another, why do you think it worth while talking to anyone who disagrees with you? I would say that if we abandon the idea of finding common ground in which to root our arguments and give up on the goal of persuading those who disagree with us as "tedious and fruitless" , we might as well stop doing philosophy. Overall comment: In my post, I asked two questions about free will. I asked for details (not metaphors) about *how* determinism is supposed to make it the case that no one has free will. (Does determinism entail that we never perform any overt actions? Does it entail that we never make any choices? Does it entail that we are never able to act or choose otherwise? Or ....?) And I asked what argument there is for any of these claims. I got virtually no reply (Andrei might have been the only one) to my first question. And, so far at least, it looks like the Consequence Argument is the only *argument* for the claim that determinism is incompatible with free will.
Toggle Commented Mar 26, 2010 on Clearing the Path at Flickers of Freedom
John: Well," question begging" is a rhetorical concept, not a logical one. An argument is question begging if includes a premise that your opponents could not possibly accept unless they already believe the conclusion. Premise (2) of Neal's argument says: 2) I can do something in the relevant sense only if it's possible that I do it, holding fixed the past and the laws. This entails *all by itself* that people can do otherwise only at indeterministic worlds -- worlds where the laws permit different futures given the same past. Moreover, it stipulates a meaning for "could have done otherwise" which is wildly at odds with the way we ordinarily use this notion. The way we ordinarily test a claim that someone could have done A is to ask if they might have done A if things had been somewhat different, e.g. if they had made different choices or had different thoughts or noticed or remembered something they didn't actually notice or remember. If (2) were right, these considerations would be irrelevant. At a trial, we ask if the train driver could have prevented the wreck. The prosecution presents evidence that had the driver not been texting his girlfriend at the time, he would almost certainly have seen the ample warnings and thrown the brake. The defense rises and says that this is all beside the point - that whether the driver could have prevented the wreck is a question of whether he might have prevented it given *exactly* the same past and laws. And so you see, the train driver obviously *couldn't* have prevented it in the *relevant* sense because at the time he was too busy texting his girlfriend! Who do you think gets laughed out of court? (2) is a premise that no one would accept unless they were *already* in the grip of a philosophical theory . That doesn't make (2) a mistake, just question-begging. Tamler: I classify someone as an impossibilist if they believe that that there is no possible world where we have free will. I classify someone as an incompatibilist if they believe that free will is possible but only if determinism is false; that is, if they believe that the only possible worlds where we have free will are indeterministic worlds. Van Inwagen's position is that free will is actual (albeit a 'mystery') and thus possible, so he counts as an incompatibilist. Galen Strawson's position is that free will is impossible for non-godlike creatures like ourselves, so he counts as an impossibilist. There are different versions of the Consequence Argument, and it may be that some of these can be used as arguments for impossibilism. The version of the CA articulated by Lewis is an argument for incompatibilism, not impossibilism. My claim is that this version of the argument fails. It doesn't follow, of course, that there isn't some version of the argument that succeeds in showing that determinism (but not indeterminism) precludes free will. My claim is that it is the incompatibilist's burden to produce this (or some other) argument. Randy: You say: "It would take my standing on a very tall ladder for me to change the light bulb at the top of the dining hall. I'm not going to stand on such a tall ladder, and I can't bring it about that I am. Hence, I can't change that light bulb. Can we think of some instances with true premises and false conclusions?" You just gave one. You *can* change that light bulb. If the ladder’s too heavy for you, you wait here and *I’ll* go get it. Thomas: You say: "I find it puzzling when people claim to be interested in free will quite independently of any moral concerns whatsoever." I agree with Randy and Joe. The question of whether we have free will (whether anything is ever up to us, whether we ever have a choice about anything, whether we are ever able to do otherwise) is of plenty interest in its own right. A moral skeptic or amoralist might have a keen interest in this question. But please remember that I do believe that free will is a necessary condition of moral responsibility -- and not just a trivially necessary condition either. I have argued this here , and also here , and here I am puzzled why you think that I shouldn't be interested in free will.
Toggle Commented Mar 21, 2010 on Clearing the Path at Flickers of Freedom
Thanks, everyone, for the comments. One general point: Note that I was talking about free will, not moral responsibility. I take free will to be necessary but not sufficient for moral responsibility, but I do not use 'free will' in the way that many free will philosophers now do, as a placeholder for something like "the freedom-relevant condition for moral responsibility". I think we have a good enough independent grip on free will to discuss the free will/determinism problem without saying anything about moral responsibility. I see the free will/determinism problem as a problem within metaphysics, (agency, choice, causation, counterfactuals, laws, etc.) not ethics. Eddy (and Tamler and Rob): I did not say there are no legitimate, non-metaphorical arguments for incompatibilism. The Consequence argument is such an argument. I think that David Lewis has a decisive (though widely misunderstood) reply to the Consequence argument. I explain why over here... The other two arguments you cite - Galen Strawson's Basic Argument and Pereboom's Manipulation argument -- are not arguments for incompatibilism, as I understand it. I understand the incompatibilist as someone who thinks that free will is possible, but not compossible with determinism. Strawson's argument is an argument for the thesis that it is impossible for us to have free will; as you note, determinism has nothing to do with it. (I give reasons for why we should understand the incompatibilist as a possibilist rather than an impossibilist in my SEP entry (, Arguments for Incompatibilism and also" here The Manipulation argument is an argument about moral responsibility, not about free will. Neal: Yes that is an argument! But, Joe is right; premise 2 begs the very question at issue. The Consequence Argument, by contrast, is an argument -- the only one that I know of -- for the truth of premise 2. Andrei: I agree with a lot of what you say. I think that the causal theory of action is right, or at least on the right track, and I think that choices are actions, so I agree with you that determinism doesn't preclude agency, including acts of choice. However, I'm not so sure that the incompatibilist should agree. I haven't read Helen Steward's paper, but it appears that she argues that determinism would rob us of free will by robbing us of agency. I don't agree with this claim, but I don't think it a crazy thing to argue. And I can imagine an incompatibilist making the argument that while determinism is compatible with various kinds of agency, including mental agency, it is not compatible with acts of choice, for choosing, by definition, requires the ability to choose otherwise. Alternatively, an incompatibilist might argue that if determinism is true, there are still acts of choice, but no one ever has a choice about anything, for having a choice requires the ability to choose and do otherwise. This appears to be van Inwagen's position. Finally, I agree with you that an incompatibilist who believes that determinism deprives us of free will by robbing us of agency or choice needs to descend to the "basement" of the philosophy of action. But, unlike the majority of free will philosophers, I don't think that the basement is such a bad place to be. Randy: We'll be discussing this at the Classical Compatibilism session at the APA, but your main move here seems to be independent of Lewis's theory of counterfactuals. You say: "If it would take a miracle for you to do a certain thing, if a miracle isn't going to happen, and if you can't bring it about that a miracle happens, then, it seems, you can't do that thing." This seems to me a Double Lutz non sequitur. Take it a step at a time: If it would take a miracle for you to do a certain thing and that miracle isn’t going to happen, all that follows is that you are not going to do that certain thing, not that you can’t. Now add in the fact that you can’t bring it about that the miracle happens. So what? You can’t bring about lots of the necessary conditions for things you do —they aren’t in your control-- but that doesn’t stop you from doing them. Dan: It was (2), not (3). But even if I didn't believe the things I said in that paper ("Libertarian Compatibilism"), I would still defend the claim that free will, including the ability to choose and do otherwise, is compatible with determinism. Jorgen: Metaphors are fine and lots of fun, so long as we don't get them mixed up with arguments or with the literal truth. John: If the incompatibilist argues that we lack free will at a deterministic world because we lack the freedom to do otherwise, and then stipulates that the freedom to do otherwise is the power to “add to the given past, holding fixed the laws", then, yes, that begs the question. What's needed is an argument for the claim that our freedom is the freedom to add to the given past, holding fixed the laws.
Toggle Commented Mar 20, 2010 on Clearing the Path at Flickers of Freedom