17 Jun 2013, 02:33

An Argument for Compatibilism


An Argument for Compatibilism

Originally Submitted by emil10001 on Wed, 11/17/2010 - 15:05

There was a post recently on r/atheism that suggested a proof that an omnicient God is incompatible with Free Will. I think that the author was incorrect in their proof, and I would like to try to take it apart.

If perfect foreknowledge of a being’s actions exists, then that being does not have free will (its actions are predetermined and cannot deviate).

This supposes that God is the Laplacian Demon, and implies determinism. I honestly don’t think that a majority of the people in the world, and especially in the US are determinists.

The existence of an omniscient god implies the existence of perfect foreknowledge of all humans’ actions. This can be granted with or without determinism. Therefore, omniscience implies a lack of free will. (We’re done; any definition which includes omniscience and free will is thus inconsistent.) This does not follow for all types of Free Will. Perhaps it follows for Free Will in the Libertarian sense, with respect to determinism. But that is simply incompatiblism, and a fairly obvious conclusion. Most Incompatiblists will argue against the idea that we live in a deterministic universe, such that there is room for a Libertarian Free Will. Free Will in the Libertarian sense is also not incompatible with an idea of God, as long as God is not required to know the entire whole of time, just have perfect knowledge of the current. The Libertarian view is actually fairly easy to put in a religious context, and that is the view of Free Will that says that not even God could know what you are going to do next. Most of the Libertarians that I have read have justified the view by saying that real, quantum randomness plays a role in the making of certain decisions.

I am not going to justify the Libertarian view much more, because from the materialist perspective, I think that it is incoherent. I am not yet decided on whether or not a persuasive argument can be made from the point of view of a dualist. Shifting back to Compatibilism, this is more the idea that there are types of Free Will that can be had even if determinism were true. There are a few problems in the determinism vs indeterminism debate, and not all of them are well understood by most people.

One such issue is the principle of ‘could have done otherwise.’ This is a staple of the Libertarian view, but it is really difficult to get them to pin down how one could have the ability to have done otherwise in a given situation. Robert Kane, of the Libertarian view, suggests that there is something like a garden of forking paths, others have made similar suggestions. There is a fundamental question about the nature of the universe that we have to ask at this point, 'does a multi-verse exist, and if so, are those multi-verses the result of our decisions?’ If the answer is 'yes,’ then we can go on discussing the Liberatarin view without modification. However, I think that the answer to that question is a sound 'No!’ and as a result, the Libertarian view must be modified a bit to accomodate this, such that the garden of forking paths becomes a model that is intended only to describe the possibilities, and not something to be taken literally. This is important to the idea of 'could have done otherwise’ because it demonstrates that regardless of whether or not determinism is true, there is only one path forward, just as there is only one chain of events in our past. We are no more able to 'change the future’ as we are to 'change the past’ (assuming that we do not have some sort of time machine).

On the idea of a branching indeterminism with real randomness. Here we have random events that cause branching points, and the universe will branch faster than exponentially at every instant. We follow one of the paths along the branches, and other versions of ourselves follow different branches to occupy an ever-expanding multiverse of possibilities.

The big problem that I see with the branching options is that the branch-points in these models would explode faster than exponentially at every agent choice and/or every truly random event. This would mean that if we did exist in a multi-verse, that multi-verse will have been multiplying at an extremely high rate since it was first created. How does that physically work? It’s fine to think about metaphysical possibilities, but the branching would need massive amounts of energy to work, so much so that the multi-verse likely wouldn’t have sustained itself for this long. I think that the branching multi-verse idea doesn’t work.

Dan Dennett suggests that we should modify our view of 'could have done otherwise’ to be more along the lines of possessing the ability to take some different action in similar, but not exactly the same circumstances. He has a brilliant analogy for this, which is that of two computers playing a game of chess against one another. Program A and Program B play each other in a game of chess, Program B looses, because it didn’t castle when it had the opportunity. The programmer who wrote B says that B could have castled. In what sense? There appear to be two distinct possiblities, either that the programmer is correct in that B could have castled if something as simple as a random number generator had thrown a different value, and B does have the ability to castle in a meaningful way. Or, that the programmer was not correct, that in almost every similar circumstance, B would not castle, as B is not a good enough program to realize the effectiveness of the move. This thought experiment is useful because it lays out the 'could have done otherwise’ idea in a completely deterministic world (that of a computer), yet it gives the ability to say, meaningfully, that something 'could have done othewise.’

Another typical sticking point in the compatiblist/libertarian debate is real vs pseudo randomness. Libertarians use real randomness to justify that we have indeterminism, as that is a pre-condition for a Libertarian Free Will. Kane places the randomness in our brains, during the making of certain types of decisions (self-forming actions, he calls them). I think that this argument does not hold much water, as any sort of randomness in the decision making process would seem to detract from the control that we have in our decision making process. I think that Bob Doyle has a better idea here, which is that real randomness is always running in the background of our brains, churning up new ideas out of the noise of activity going on. Dennett’s view is that it shouldn’t matter if the randomness is real or pseudo-random, since there is no Laplacian Demon haunting us, and no agent has the ability to step outside of the universe and take a peek in. Dennett does grant that real randomness would be useful in certain, special cases.

If a decision comes down to random chance, what is the point of using this as an argument for free will? If your self-forming actions are influenced by randomness, then so are the desires between which you are choosing in your SFAs (self-forming actions), as are the causes of those desires. This issue is not a problem for the compatiblist, as they accept that we are sometimes subject to outside forces. However, for the libertarian, it seems as though the argument that chaotic randomness in the brain contradicts the sort of free will that they claim to desire.

Responsibility is an important point here, but I think that the general idea of the compatiblist is that since there are no Laplacian Demons, and we are all on the same playing field with respect to the information that we have about the universe, it is perfectly reasonable to hold people responsible for their actions. Further, within the context of society there are some good reasons to keep responsibility around, if not from the purely moral perspective, but from the consequentialist perspective. Dennett does a nice job of laying out the reasons for this in his book “Elbow Room.”

Basically, there is a consequentialist argument to be made here. We can have responsibility, even if determinism is true, in the sense that we need some way of holding people accountable for their actions. Having a society with rules is important, because it helps to keep things moving in a positive direction. We might need to give up a bit of our intuitions about why we punish, we might want to say that we do not punish someone because they deserved it through their actions. Instead, we should punish because there are consequences to certain actions, and those consequences should serve a purpose. Sometimes, that purpose is to deterpeople from taking some action, other times the purpose is to try to correct the negative behavior, sometimes the purpose is both. This is also not to say that our feelings of guilt or holding somebody accountable for their actions on a moral level need to go away either, as these may server consequentialist purposes. If a person is averse to feeling guilt, and they know that if they take some action, that they will be made to feel guilty for having done it, that may be a good enough deterrant for them to avoid taking that action. (See Dan Dennett’s, “Elbow Room” p156 for a better explanation)

Control may be a sign that even in a deterministic universe we can affect our environment to bend to our will. If we are cold, we can turn up the thermostat. If we are flying a model airplane, we can determine the course that it should take, or some stunt that we would like to see. This is something that Dennett thinks is an important facet of our freedom.

Finally, we are subject to reasons and introspection. This should be something that we welcome, as a sign of our ability to think rationally, and make choices based on our experiences. This has a sound foundation in determinism. We have a wealth of experiences and reflections to draw on when we make a decision, and we typically try to open ourselves to the best reasoning that we can muster while making a decision. Reasons, in the deterministic universe would hold just as much sway as they do in an indeterministic universe, if not more. We have the ability to look within ourselves and reflect on previous decisions that we’ve made and either remain with those previous decisions, or decide to depart from them with the presentation of new evidence.

All in all, I think that there is much to be said for a Compatiblist Free Will. I have done my best to cover the topic in a post, but I know that there is much that I have left out.

Original comments here.

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