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Real Responsibility and Pragmatic Free Will: Filling Gaps in Compatibilism
George Lyons 2016
Comments may be posted to this blog file for review by author before publishing. Questions, arguments, additional articles relevant will be considered; simple agreement or disagreement no appropriate. Additional essays may be posted by the author to cover more of the subject, for which a voluminous literature exists in philosophy.
See the author’s article on the subject in the July, 2021, Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Univ. of Penn. Press.
A single file of this paper can be downloaded from DropBox at
- Historical Background
- Gaps in Compatibilism
- Real Practicality
- Practical Alternative Choices
- Randomness vs Indeterminism
- Practical Origins
- Practical Choices
- Practical Responsibility
- Historical Background
When the humanistic ideas of personal responsibility for choices made with freedom of will are considered from a modern scientific perspective, they have been rejected on account of nature being deterministic according to exacting natural laws of cause and effect. Some philosophers take that to mean the ordinary ideas of responsibility are sheer fantasy lacking any logical justification, treating choices as just a matter of luck, “Moral Luck” as it is called. Others go to an unusual extreme of arguing life and society empirically depend on accepting responsibility in practice even though it is not true; we should go around believing in fantasies, a strange way of mastering facts of reality. Other philosophers, free from the constraints of the more materialistic attitude in science, take mind as an immaterial, spiritual phenomenon, in a separate world of its own, capable of the magical indeterminate “power” to choose among alternatives with no determined effect. Responsibility there pertains to an ability to choose otherwise than actually done, supposedly to truly have alternatives (an intuitive term but ambiguous in many ways). This “dualism” as it is called, between mind and matter, was the original approach of science at its origin, in such figures as Descartes, important in mathematics, as well as ancient sage Aristotle (long the focus of study by Roman Catholic scholars in church institutions and a bone of contention to the new enterprise of science). Nowadays it would be called a ghost in the machine.
Opposed to all this is a view also from the birth of science in the 17th century attempting to logically resolve the paradox of will by examining concepts in more detail and refining definitions. Thomas Hobbes, notorious advocate of authoritarian rule (besides work in mathematics), proposed freedom and determinism were logically consistent or compatible, in what is now called Compatibilism in modern philosophy (it had once been called “soft determinism”, with a more cozy feeling). There are different kinds of freedom and the term is often used to describe inanimate things in various ways, as a shaft free to turn in a bearing, free electrons comprising electric current in wires, or merely opening a door to free passage. What matters, though, is what kind of action is free to occur, and the particular mental activity of making conscious choices presents puzzles for intuitive understanding of the issues. Responsibility is a separate issue when things are just free to be determined. Compatibilism has been described as the most popular position among contemporary philosophers in the present era of high technology.
Besides the simple inconsistency of indeterminate choices with scientific evidence, the logic of indeterminism has been criticized as incoherent and illogical on its own terms. Too many such critiques exist to analyze here and are merely negative conclusions about what is false, compared to a positive account of responsibility sought here. A recent survey covering a large number of different positions in philosophy on the subject is “Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy” by Bob Doyle, also online at informationphilosopher.com/freedom/. Doyle’s account of responsibility has more reliance on the uncertainties revealed in Quantum Theory than here, where the essentially practical nature of the problem is emphasized.
- Gaps in Compatibilism
Compatibilist arguments in philosophy are intuitively appealing by pointing in effect to a mental role understood empirically and in practice (so called ostensible definition). Yet the analysis does not seem to fully explain the facts, leaving much to imagination, and so begs the question as is the term. Based on Hobbes a noted modern article under the pseudonym Hobart argued choices had been treated without regard to any process or activity to make choices. Emulating engineers more is supposed to clarify the issues, understanding processes. Yet the analysis provided is not very detailed about processes. Indeed, it would seem any kind of method, procedure, faculty involved in choices would raise the specter of predestination and eliminate the magical indeterminism. This classical Compatibilism, as going back to Hobbes, takes as the unique quality of intelligence the ability to solve problems by finding means to ends, and so being goal directed with a uniquely broad scope. Problem solving activity is the relevant process. Only interference with such normal mental activity would constitute a constraint upon exercise of will, with such activity freely proceding in virtue of causes determining it. Hobart even said freedom requires determinism in order to have control (as opposed to going haywire). A.J. Ayer from the early 20th century is known for distinguishing constraint and compulsion from determination of normal mental activity. While appealing in principle, exactly what is so special about normal activity demanding concepts of personal responsibility has not been explained in any detail and something further is needed. Lots of normal mental activity is obviously determined by facts known perfectly, instead of personal activity, correctly recognized with minimal thought, as being determined to leave a room by the door instead of through walls.
One school of thought tries to side step the old assertions of indeterminism by relabeling them, in a linguistic move, as causation by an entity instead of by conditions, as properties of entities with a defining identity, in so called Entity Causation, going back to Aristotle, compared to the scientific concepts associated with David Hume and empirical schools. So a person can be blamed or credited as an entity, in virtue of this causal relation. The only problem is what forms a definable entity is sets of the usual cause and effect relations binding a set of parts into a recognizable whole. Only more obfuscation seems to be the result. It is a bit of having your indeterminism and eating it, too. (Famous Immanual Kant regarded Hobbes’ freedom the same way, calling it a “wretched subterfuge”. Yet Kant is classified as compatibilist in his own way.)
The most modern treatments such as Frankfurt’s, popular in academic discourse, get far removed from anything practical or experienced. The argument procedes by imagining fantastical technology to read minds with a potential for interference in a way making a universal demand for indeterminism false by a counter example. Some more realistic versions can be cooked up but the whole point appears directed at universality of a principle, when in practice special cases can simply be excluded. So it does not apply to some special case, so what? Such works are in line with the dominance of skepticism in Analytical Philosophy, making hay out of obscure issues in logic, exposing faults in older, idealistic philosophy, without any practical application.
Abstract metaphysics is brought in by John Fischer offering a distinction between “guidance control” consistent with determinism versus “regulative control” with the usual magic. The terms are hardly suggestive of any difference, and through innumerable obscure issues discussed exactly what guidance control consists of is not very clear. Here it must be left to the reader to explore if interested. How can something known in experience require such a long and convoluted treatment? Something more direct would be preferable, though not the prevailing style in philosophy.
- Real Practicality
Theory and practice are commonly treated as opposed, with the pragmatist derided as dispensing with long term goals and abstract moral principles in favor of short term, dubious advantages. Or more favorably, practical matters may be described as applications of important general principles to specific cases, where principles still govern the needs for action and the practical details are minor factors. Both these positions omit what is proposed as new here, and more realistic, the complexity of practical matters being subject to many principles and special principles of complexity not treated much in philosophy (though not as obscure as found in advanced mathematics). What treatment there is can be very obscure.
Philosophers have claimed wisdom superior to traditional ideas and common sense from the beginning, using more abstract concepts. The appeal is enhanced by the example of science, discarding primitive ideas of the flat earth or geocentric astronomy in favor of more advanced theories. Yet science adds empirically proven detail to knowledge, while philosophy, especially in the modern skeptical age, is purely negative, proving various ideas false, while adding nothing much to replace them. In ancient times such arguments were offered by Sophists known for posing puzzles for sheer curiosity. Sophistry came to be seen as useless skepticism, even trickery (easily observed today in political punditry).
When a complex situation is addressed with common sense and empirical experience, all the principles involved may not be expressed explicitly and simpler general concepts such as cause and effect or freedom can be used as labels to identify phenomena known intuitively, but not fully described. The well understood principles involded serve as handy labels for the more complex substance not yet made explicit (what philosophy is supposedly for). Science is hardly devoid of principles but develops a lot of concepts, elemental constituents of existence, with some intricacy. Yes, there are elemental forms of matter, but over a hundred chemical elements compared to the poetic ancient four, earth, air, fire and water. Personal responsibility for choices is treated in philosophy most often with reference to moral values, very abstract ideals, moral responsibility instead of cognitive responsibility, while the personal role in affairs is encountered eveywhere in all the mundane, practical matters of life. Those practical matters include all the intellectual work done advancing science and technology central to human life today, in the industrial economy far removed from days of agriculture’s dominance. In all such practical affairs choices are made just as much as over moral issues, and there is no reason not to examine the mental actions involved in such choice to understand responsibiity in a personal sense. Moral choices are then just more instances of the same kind of activity, just in this realm of high minded ideals and important social issues.
The most popular advocate of Compatibilism does not even emphasize that term and discusses more specific mental abilities in a famous work by philosopher of science Daniel Dennett, “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting”. Here the indeterminism side of the paradox is heavily exposed as a loss of control, not worth wanting, compared to some magically enhanced type. Yet exactly why personal responsibility is an important value seems left to intuition. Dennett does introduce a potentially useful consideration, that free will and responsibility serve a purpose, in practical matters — are worth wanting. How purposes are pursued in practice, the actual means available with intelligence, is the focus of the present work here.
- Practical Alternative Choices
A step towards a concept of practical responsibility is a further explanation of how varied circumstances and determinants represent real alternatives and not just imaginary unspecified possibilities. Physical things differ in terms of flexibility in their structure, a degree to which they are sensitive to more changes in conditions than others. Machines in particular are made to vary as with steerable wheels on cars and rudders on boats. Steerage gives more alternatives to motion than a railroad car confined to tracks. The technical term “degrees of freedom” gives precision to describing mechanical linkages. A standard hardware “universal joint” moves in all directions compared to an ordinary door hinge.
Besides a steerable car being capable of following alternative routes, to alternate destinations, flexibility is central to accomplishing goal directed action. Obviously the opportunity is presented to select a route which reaches a destination by making the necessary turns. An additional factor, though, is correcting errors in travel along a route, keeping a vehicle on a course. Cars are continuously steered to compensate for inability to roll perfectly in a straight line (not to mention navigating curves.) Ships at sea must handle wind and waves. The procedure involved has a technical term, Adaptive Control, adapting to external forces with actions to compensate. As machines in the age of high technology are capable of such control, as in autopilots and all sorts of things (including weapons systems), an engineering subject of Control Systems Theory exists with special university degrees. Such control immitates capacities of living things and abstracts the principles on which creatures operate, pursuing the original 17th century concept of the body as a kind of machine for living, now advanced to a high degree. In this case though, the ancient separation from the body of all mental actions into a spiritual realm has been breached. The mind as a mechanism is now a scientific topic, with engineering studies of artificial intelligence, AI, far beyond simple controls. How a machine can exhibit personal responsibility is sought in this exposition (for inclusion in the operating manual for minds).
Whether this kind of control constitutes Fischer’s “Guidance Control” is left to others to say with the obscurity there. The idea here is a specific mechanism and means of control.
The common idea of mechanism is a clockwork, the original historical type of mechanism, essentially defined by its repitition and so predictability (so unique originally as to fascinate people with the property). The clock writ large in the heavens in the regular motion of planets in orbit enhances the imagery. This image affects intuitions about the role of determination in choices. The more complex control mechanisms of the modern era were unavailable (and so ignored) by philosophers pontificating about mind from ancient times. These more complex instruments are not predictable (at least internally) as they dynamically respond to random circumstances (even though success of those responses make them predictable in the end; the instruments work as intended). They illustrate a fundamental feature of goal directed action, that it is accomplished adaptively with constant changes instead of making decisions once and for all. As the poet said, “the best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray.” Even plans for a travel route can encounter detours, so much that standard road signs exist for the case.
Flexible things then have a distinctive destiny in the determined realization of fate: they are determined to vary a lot. They are logically described as having alternatives in action in different circumstance, because their circumstances are always changing. The planets may be regular but spaceships rocketing among them are not.
Philosophy renders alternatives in conscious choices puzzling by abstracting from the dynamics of control extended over time. Choices are described as being at a fork in a road (or more often a garden, where philosophers meander) and selecting one path or another. Isolating choices to one point in time eliminates the real flexibility which exists, realized over time, in favor of indeterminate possibilities. In practice there is no single path, as a wrong turn results in finding yet another path back to an intended course, adaptively (which in a broader context could be described as redemption).
Philosophy summarizes ideas of alternatives with the proposition “ought implies can”, meaning ability to achieve values by making choices. No one is responsible for impossible actions (as though this explains anything). The requirement would seem to be logically satisfied, in a Compatibilist manner, by posessing the mechanisms for adaptive control allowing use of the advice and evaluations of choices made, for that purpose. All that is intuitively recognized contemplating choice introspectively is the flexibility present in mental powers, not magical abilities of indeterminate action. Being determined to make a wrong choice of some kind, hardly negates possession of the functions of realistic control, even when those functions include making mistakes as inevitable fate. Like a famous saying, there are more things in fate than dreamt of in philosophy… The mysterious powers of choice are realistically ability to learn from mistakes (requiring a certain level of intelligence). Moral issues distract from this perspective, by presenting issues as nothing to learn but as something given by moral authority. Attention to all the other issues of action, in all practical affairs from science to business, gives a different and more realistic perspective. That philosophers are often off in an academic or religious world devoid of much practical concern could be a factor in the intellectual history. The division in philosophy between so-called Rationalist schools and Empiricists can also be involved. The empirical revolution in science revealed a role of learning from experience over time, compared to the ideas truth (and correct choices) could be found just by deduction (and paying tuition to philosophers).
Not all values are accomplished by making choices; making good choices is just one particular value, a question of valuing cognitive performance, a sort of higher order value. No one chooses having a need to eat, yet this need justifies a lot of action (which gets expressed in the military, where “no excuses” is a popular attitude, given the dire circumstances of war where it is do or die.). An argument sometimes seen claims values are about what is good, regardless how they are acquired or not, thereby supporting compatibilism, in response to the “ought implies” view; this logic does not seem relevant here. It is good to advance technology but it can take whole generations to make some discoveries; simple choices are not involved. The issue with personal responsibility is whether mind is a relevant cause of choices requiring action directed at this particular cause , introspectively, in the course of goal directed action.
Industrial control mechanisms respond to external forces only, assigning responsibility for all situations to those externalities or determinants beyond the mechanism itself — no personal responsibility. Autopilots respond to deviations from course, not questions about their own internal operation. Thermostats attend to room temperature and not dirt on their switch contacts. It will be further argued, however, that in solving problems of a sufficient complexity, more in the AI realm, an introspective aspect emerges in the necessary operations of control mechanisms.
To be complete, a realistic concept of possibility or potential, what “can” be, compared to what is, is needed compared to the metaphysical ideas in ancient philosophy. The possible as opposed to actual can be considered an instance of abstraction, where the abstract properties of things define a class of different possible member instances, however much only one possibility is realized, the rest termed counter-factual. The reality of the alternatives is that of the abstract attribute expressed in terms of hypothetical possibilities, all of which are attributes of actualized particulars. The singular particular actual facts are even the product of their abstract properties and possibilities. The flexibile steering of a car makes many different routes possible, with no weird possibilities all being actual in some metaphysical sense. The concept of possibility is context dependent in usage, relative to particular objects of discourse (invasion from Mars becoming relevant only in writing science fiction).
- Randomness vs Indeterminism
A standard point in classical compatibilism is that the philosopher’s idea of “power to do otherwise than done” (people being blamed for exercising their powers, almost like an annoying super hero of fiction) has a sufficient realistic form in doing otherwise in different circumstances, at different times, with different determinants. This idea is intuitively appealing except there is no deep analysis of how circumstances change or vary in a relevant way. Everything is different in different circumstances, so how does this apply to conscious choices compared to anything at all, imagined differently? The idea is virtually a tautology lacking specific content and so begging the question. It seems yet another way in which philosophy confines itself to broad abstractions. Everything else belongs to another discipline, a special science, not suitable for treatment as philosophy.
The concept most missing in the philosophy of mind at least, compared to the science of control is randomness. The random and unpredictable parts of nature are seldom the focus of explanations just because they are unpredictable limiting what can be said about them. Explaining the unpredictable is almost an oxymoron. Science did not bother to explore randomness fully until the late twentieth century in a mathematical analysis entitled Chaos Theory. Science had focussed on natural laws, which could make predictions useful in engineering or otherwise. Randomness hardly satisfies that interest. The practical need is predicting solutions to problems known to work (which is more likely to supply funds than other research). A popular advice was that even though a gaming device such as a roulette wheel could appear random, this was only an accident of ignorance, not knowing all the physical measurements involved in determining the spin. Randomness, it was cautioned, did not over rule natural law, and was not indeterminism.
Of course, Quantum Theory or Quantum Mechanics in atomic physics brought in notions of inherent probabilities in sub-atomic particle events. Despite the randomness, much practical electronics and chemistry depends on those principles. As it has been pointed out though, laws of probability are just as much constraining as the simpler kind, just in more complex ways (allowing predictable electronics application). It has been argued that quantum probabilities represent an avenue for realizing the magical indeterminism traditionally associated with free will. It is a very common recourse encountered in those of a scientific bent seeking to solve the problem. Yet it has been pointed out by philosophers of such as Oxford’s Ted Honderich, that probability does not logically present any kind of gap into which miracles can penetrate the deterministic side of things. Even randomness is lawful.
Quantum probability can be one sort of randomness but is not clearly the source of most random qualities in the environment. Macroscopic objects average out the uncertainties of their subatomic components (which then take special instruments to detect). There was a topic of Statistical Mechanics in classical physics before Quantum Theory, dealing with given randomness rather than its source; gas molecules are randomly distributed etc. Attention turned to randomness in physics when, following the roulette wheel advice, attempts were made in the late twentieth century to predict weather more accurately by expanding data collection, and the attempt failed. Deeper investigation (weather being a well funded subject) then revealed the basic laws of motion, applied to fluids such as the atmosphere, create random distributions in simple interactions in certain cases, especially those involving non-linear equations of motion (such as the law of gravity with inverse square form). There were many examples long known just not worth analyzing at the time.
The chaos principles turn out deeply imbedded in mathematics apart from physical application, in familiar qualities of fractions not represented by a ratio, called irrational, such as the diagonal across a square with length the square root of two. When expressed in decimal form an infinite number of digits is required to represent the length, and the digits never repeat any pattern, infinitely, with endless variation (the circle ratio Pi is the most famous such irrational number). Physical forms of such relations turn out to exist and explain how all sorts of things are scattered or endlessly vary in unpredictable ways, following paths named “strange attractors”, compared to regular ones like a planet’s orbit. The strange ones make a different orbit on every revolution (sometimes with enormous effect as when an asteroid wanders into the earth to the demise of all the dinosaurs, who could make life difficult for philosophers). Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram presented examples of very minimal digital computations with this property in his innovative book, “A New Kind of Science”. In the roulette wheel determinants are certainly there, but are just infinite in extent, at the microscopic level.
Randomness is easy to produce without recourse to the weirdness in quantum physics, whatever its importance, just in making a gaming device, employing natural random mechanisms ubiquitous in the environment. There is no mere accident of ignorance, but a fundamental principle of randomness in the laws of motion themselves, whose very strictness creates the opposite in a certain sense. It can seem a bit Zen like, but so does Einstein’s relativity to laymen. Nature is then divided into realms of order and chaos (including all gaseous matter with random molecules) and interactions between them (such as biological evolution) prominent in common experience and fundamental to goal directed action overcoming randomness. However inevitable, fate turns out more complicated than treated abstractly in philosophical concepts. Destiny encompasses random variation, putting oracles and sears out of business (never did pay well anyway). The rel