Thursday, November 12, 2009

Determinism and Necessity (Chapter 1.4)

Robert Kane asserts that the "free will problem" arose when human beings evolved enough to begin reflecting on the world and on themselves and their own behavior and came to realize that many factors influenced if not caused that behavior. This led to doctrines of physical, logical, theological, biological, psychological, social, and other kinds of determinism. But, says Kane, the "core idea" of all deterministic doctrines is:

An event (such as a choice or action) is determined when there are conditions obtaining earlier (such as the decrees of fate or the foreordaining acts of God or antecedent causes plus laws of nature) whose occurrence is a sufficient condition for the occurrence of the event. In other words, it must be the case that if these earlier determining conditions obtain, then the determined event will occur.

Kane points out that while determinism is "a kind of necessity," it is a "conditional necessity" in that a determined event is inevitable only if the proper conditions arise to determine it. For example, John did NOT have to go to Samarra no matter what the preceding conditions were. Had those conditions been different, he might have been determined by THEM to go to Damascus instead. But they were such that he was determined to go to Samarra.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Responsibility (Chapter 1.3)

In my previous entry we considered Robert Kane's preliminary analysis of freedom as it pertains to the free will vs. determinism issue or what we'll henceforth call the "free will problem." Today, let's see what Kane has to say about the notion of responsibility.

Kane writes that when we consider the free will problem, not only are we concerned with whether and to what degree people are free to do what they will and will what they do, but we also want to know whether and to what degree we can credit or praise them for the good things they do and blame them or hold them "accountable" or "responsible" for the bad things they do.

Kane invites us to imagine that we're attending the trial of a young man charged with robbing and beating someone to death. As the facts of the crime emerge, we feel very angry toward the defendant, but as we hear about the terrible physical and sexual abuse and parental neglect he suffered as a child, some of our anger shifts from him to his parents and others who neglected and abused him. We think that they too bear responsibility for this young man's awful crime.

But how much responsibility do they bear? How accountable should we hold them? We all realize that people are influenced in their choices not only by what happens to them in life but also by such factors as their genetic predispositions, physical and neurological functioning, and psychological condition, but do they also bear some residual "ultimate responsibility" for their actions that is the result of their own "free will"?

As Kane puts it in his hypothetical scenario of the young man on trial:

To what extent is he responsible for becoming the sort of person he now is? Was his behavior all a question of bad parenting, social neglect, social conditioning and, the like, or did he have any role in choosing it?

In my next entry, we'll consider what Kane has to say about "determinism and necessity."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Freedom (Chapter 1.2)

Robert Kane says people throughout the world seek greater freedom and that there's a general tendency in many nations for their people to gain more of it. What kind of freedom are we talking about? The ability "to satisfy more of our desires." That is, we are free if we can vote the way we want, travel where we want, read the books we want, and so on without being prevented from doing it. In broader terms, it's "freedom from coercion, punishment, restraint, oppression, and the like" when we pursue our desires.

But Kane says that although this is an important freedom, it's only a "surface freedom" and not what philosophers mean by "free will." (At this point, I'd like to interject that it seems to me that most people think of "free will" as little or nothing more than the "surface freedom" to do what one wishes.) For philosophers like Kane, there is a deeper kind of freedom consisting of "ultimate power" over what it is that we will. We have free will when we are free to do what we will AND to will what we do or something else instead.

But Kane asks to what extent we have this "ultimate power" over our will. After all, aren't our wills manipulated in countless ways by the media, our culture, our peers and families, and by many other influences? We don't want to think so; hence, our reflexive discomfort with the fictional societies depicted in such novels as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. In the former, the working masses are forced to take drugs that manipulate their wills so that they will only what the powers-that-be want them to, and these neurochemically manipulated masses feel content to do as they artificially please. In "Walden Two," there is a rural commune where the inhabitants' wills are conditioned from birth by highly sophisticated and powerful behavioral engineering that makes everybody free to do what they will because they can will only what their society conditions them to.

In "Walden Two," a representative of the commune named Frazier has a discussion with a skeptical visitor named Castle about the quality of freedom enjoyed by the commune's inhabitants. Castle argues that they enjoy a specious and undesirable kind of freedom because although they are happily free to do what they will, they are not free to will what they do because their wills are rigidly controlled by outside influences. Frazier responds that Walden Two is "the freest place on earth" since everybody can do what they want without any coercion, punishment, or harassment, whereas in the world outside, people's wills are just as thoroughly conditioned by their environments, but in such a haphazard way that a lot of people end up willing things that conflict with their own and society's best interests so that they're often not even free to do what they will.

Says Kane:

Thus the gauntlet is thrown down by Frazier--echoing Skinner and many other modern thinkers: the so-called deeper freedom of the will is an illusion dreamt up by philosophers and theologians before we understood more about the hidden causes of behavior. It is an outdated idea that has no place in modern scientific picture of the world or of human beings...Why sacrifice the everyday freedoms that really matter to us...for an illusory freedom of the will that we cannot have anyway?

In my next entry, we'll consider what Kane has to say about another key aspect of the free will issue--the notion of "responsibility."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kane's Introduction (Chapter 1.1)

Robert Kane is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. He's published important books and articles about philosophy and is considered to be one of the foremost defenders of the philosophy of free will. One of his latest books is the one I've chosen to use as the beginning point of my systematic study of the free will vs determinism issue. This book is titled A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. It was published by the Oxford University Press in 2005 and has received much acclaim by academics and readers.

The Times Literary Supplement says: "Any educated person willing to make the effort can now read Kane's inclusive, careful and accessible book and know that he or she is familiar with the free-will problem and with the current state of human understanding of it. . . .A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will will replace all other introductions to the subject."

Michael McKenna of Ithaca College writes: "This book, by far, stands alone as the best book to introduce this topic to the introductory philosophy student. It is stellar. . . . Kane is a master at capturing the kernel of even the most challenging and intricate issues in the free will debate, showing their structures and displaying an underlying simplicity."

And an Amazon reader says: "Robert Kane's "Contemporary Introduction to Free Will" is hands down the finest text in its class. Professors who wish to include a component on free will in their introductory courses, or who are looking for a scholarly and accessible text for a class on free will and related issues, will find in Kane's text a thoughtful, subtle, and above all lucid and authoritative presentation of the problem of freedom in its many dimensions, as well as a charitable and well-informed assessment of historical and contemporary stances on the problem of free will."

Kane begins his masterwork by quoting the great Sufi poet Rumi: "There is a disputation that will continue till mankind is raised from the dead, between the necessitarians and the partisans of free will." Kane then proceeds to describe a conundrum presented by John Milton's classic Paradise Lost:

John Milton describes the angels debating how some of them could have sinned of their own free wills given that God made them intelligent and happy. Why would they have done it? And why were they responsible for their sins rather than God, since God had made them the way they were and had complete foreknowledge of what they would do? While puzzling over such questions even the angels, according to Milton, were "in Endless Mazes lost" (not a comforting thought for us humans).

Kane writes that when we study the free will vs determinism issue, we are prompted to learn relevant information in many philosophical, scientific, legal, and other disciplines and to consider pertinent notions and issues within those disciplines.

He begins by examining the notion of "freedom." What is freedom, and what does it have to do with free will? We will consider Kane's analysis of freedom in my next entry.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Do we have free will, or are all our choices determined by causes beyond our egoic control? I've wondered about this ever since I was a teenager over forty years ago. During almost that entire time I've believed that our choices are neither free of external causes nor determined by them, because there is nothing external to who or what we ultimately are. We are the whole universe, and our choices are the whole universe's choices. But this universe is one in which everything is so interrelated that there are no fundamentally separate things. All is one and one is all. The universe is a unified field. The unified field chooses.

Yet the practical result of this "mystical" perspective so far as the will is concerned is the same as what I understand philosophers to mean by "determinism." Our choices are necessary or inevitable given the state of the chooser at the time it chooses. It doesn't matter whether the chooser is understood to be an individual human being or the organism-environment field of the universe. IT chooses what it must given its precise nature or state of being at the time. More specifically, given one's genetic composition and the precise state of her body, brain, mind, and physical, social, and cultural environment at a given time, the choice she makes at that time can't be other than it is.

I've taken to calling this position "inevitablism" rather than determinism. I've done this because I want the term I use to suggest the inevitability of our choices but not that they are "determined" or caused by something outside the chooser. I don't want to imply external causation because I believe that ultimately there is nothing outside the chooser.

I believe that inevitablism has important ethical, legal, psychological, and even spiritual ramifications. But I can't honestly say that I know enough about this perspective and competing ones to meaningfully judge how sound or unsound they are. Nor can I offer as persuasive a scientific and philosophical defense of my perspective as I'd like. My dream is to write a book that lays out my inevitabilist perspective in uniquely clear, comprehensive, and compelling terms. Perhaps it's crazy to think that I could ever actually accomplish this and have anyone read it, but I want to try.

Yet before I do I need to learn a lot more about the issue. And it occurs to me that one of the best ways I can do this is to read many good books and articles about it. And I can strengthen my learning by summarizing here the essence of what I learn as I learn it. Then after I've built a "critical mass" of learning I can start posting my reflections on what I've learned in a useful way.

I may learn so much that I can no longer embrace my longstanding view. I'm hoping that I can go into this undertaking with enough of an open mind and heart that I'm not simply looking to support my preconceptions. I'm hoping that I'll be open enough to consider and even accept as true sufficiently persuasive evidence or argument against my preconceptions and to proceed from there in the best way. Who knows? I may end up authoring a blog or book defending free will. If you knew me personally and had ever become locked in intense discussion with me about free will, you'd know that this isn't very likely. But, hey, miracles DO happen. Or do they?

However, I need to start somewhere. I propose to do it with this blog. And if anybody out there is interested in following my progress and perhaps learning more about the issue themselves as we go along, and you want to discuss it with me and others here, I hope you'll stick around and make your presence felt.

In my next post I'll introduce the first chapter of the first book I've chosen to study and summarize. It's Robert Kane's masterful A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will.