Thursday, 5 March 2009

Responsibility requires no free will


I have looked at the question of free will in a number of recent posts and find that what is assumed as obvious is far from it and more likely the opposite conclusion is correct. For example far from responsibility requiring free will, it appears to be the opposite, that responsibility is not possible with what is normally thought of as free will. Lets state the argument clearly and simply here:

One is held responsible for one’s actions, desires and beliefs - that is having and acting on certain desires and beliefs is what one is held responsible for. If being responsible requires some notion of freedom then all could mean here is that one is held responsible for the proximate causes of one's action, that one is held responsible for having (or lacking) motivating reasons to act and that external antecedent factors such as the social environment of credit and blame, reward and punishment are constitutive of and contribute to the selection of the beliefs and desires that one has. Any other notion of freedom implies some sort of disconnect either between motivating reasons and actions (that is not akrasia and any other such naturally explainable factors) or between the relations between these external antecedent factors and one's actions. If this disconnect is explicable then it is not contra-causal or libertarian, since it can be explained in the same naturalistic terms used to explain the rest of this process. That is if there were some rational or probabilistic explanation then it would not be contra-causal. So to insist on some form of true free will is to insist that is must be random with respect to any prior antecedent factors (whether external to the person in the environment or internal to the person or both). Now if this occurs how could one be reasonably be held responsible for this? There is no basis for doing so! So it is just as well there is no evidence supporting such phenomenon and processes, that is there no evidence that a contra-causal free will exist, so this is no argument against not being held responsible for one's actions!

So generally when someone argues that free will is required for responsibility - challenge them to show how they can make a coherent argument of this possibility - and if they cannot (which all these recent posts have been arguing for directly and indirectly) then this is an appeal to consequences and is not only false, in fact it is the opposite. Such a free will contradicts responsibility, so if they are honest concerned about responsibility they would give up such mistaken and usupported notion of free will.

Still people might like to retain "free will talk", indeed such terms are pragmatically very useful on a day to day basis as long one does not make the mistake of reifying these concepts into something they are not. One might say that free will supervenes on the natural world? That is there are no facts of the matter beyond the natural facts,there are no additional free will properties. This is no different to looking at many other aspects of the natural world. Scientific ontologies can build on one another as long as they are grounded/reducible to a physical basis. Still there are sciences that can operate at these higher levels of abstraction. Insofar as there is a science of psychology, there are psychological properties, etc., which while they are grounded or reducible to physical properties in some sense, they are not reducible in practice. (The reduction would be much too complex to undertake). However, by contrast in the case of free will, these are reducible in practice.

Some might retain free will talk as compatibalists focusing on the lack of coercion as the real issue with respect to free will. This is a different question to the one I have been addressing here. It uses a reforming definition of free will - a position I am not averse to having suggested the same thing with respect to moral terms and in much the same way. (I do note that anyone who does do this cannot without consistency reject doing the same with moral terms!

Still what about the illusion of free will, if there is no contra-causal free will is the reason people believe there is due to this illusion? Well is there in fact an illusion or even an unavoidable persistent one, even after we recognise it is an illusion we cannot avoid being subject to it?

The issues of coercion and the illusion of free will are to be covered in future posts.