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1. Reductionist Compatibilism
Possibly the most compelling form of determinism is one that uses reductionism as its foundation. Reductionism is the view that all complex systems can be reliably reduced to their simple parts, and understood in that way. As a basis for a determinist theory, reductionism suggests that for all of our decisions and choices – what we would consider fundamental to our free will – can be broken
down and understood as neural activity. This neural activity can be thought of as the interaction of a multitude of neurons and chemical messengers, the relationships of which can be explained by biology, chemistry, and physics. The natural laws of these sciences and how they interact are surely out of our hands, and their processes each started long before we were born, so it follows that our choices and decisions are not up to us, but up to scientific law, and a causal chain which began billions of years ago.
The main consequences of this theory is that free will is entirely illusory; reductionist determinism is incompatible determinism. This kind of theory is immediately unattractive to most because as Kane puts it, “We want [free will]
because we want ultimate responsibility. And why do we want that? For the reason that children and adults take delight in their accomplishment from the earliest moments of their awakening as persons, whether these accomplishments are
1making a fist or walking upright or composing a symphony.” Any theory that has
the gall to tell us that we are just a big cause-and-effect machine, a big mass of atoms that has been tragically fooled into thinking it has any control over anything, is a
1 Significance of Free Will. 1996. 100.
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theory many people would love to see disproven, debunked, and thrown in the trash. For if we don’t have responsibility for what we do, how can we blame genocidal
dictators for the atrocities they have committed? How can I brag about winning the Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts when I was six? These are both very important questions.
There are two ways philosophers have tried to salvage our capacities for free and responsible choice. Libertarians reject determinism entirely; Robert Kane, for one, used what he called Self-Forming Actions, which occur in undetermined instances where there are alternative possibilities which we may responsibly choose between. Compatibilists try to find room within the determinist framework for free will to show itself, even if only briefly. Many of these theories do not seem to consider this type of determinism, however, and here I hope to show how someone of this theory would likely respond to contemporary objections.
2. The Cereal Conundrum
Many philosophers who argue against determinism use objections that focus on our intuitions as to what free will is. One example of a compatibilist argument is Frankfurt’s use of his Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP): Black wishes for Jones to buy General Mills cereals only, because he hates Kellogg’s with the white hot burning passion of a thousand suns. Black does not want to show his hand unnecessarily, however, and so waits for Jones to walk down the cereal aisle and make his own decision. Black will only exert his influence in the case that Jones chooses Kellogg’s. But if in one case Jones chooses Wheaties without Black’s coercion, and in another Jones attempts to buy Kellogg’s but then is forced not to, we
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would say (and so would Jones) that in the first case he made a free choice and in the second he did not.
On the surface this argument makes complete sense; from an outside
perspective it is clear that Jones had no alternative but to choose a delicious General Mills cereal, but nonetheless he makes his own choice and would be considered responsible for doing so. In this way it is a clear objective to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, as an agent can have a complete lack of those alternative possibilities yet still be considered fully responsible for his actions.
For reductionist determinism, however, this argument misses the point. While it seems at first that an uncoerced Jones has more responsibility for his actions than a coerced Jones, this difference is an illusion. Broken down, everything that both Jones and Black did up until time t when the cereal decision was being
made, was a result of their internal chemistry. Every experience and thought they had had until t changed their neurons in some way and from a scientific standpoint, that input could have only one output, which we interpret as the thought or decision. Under this view every world that is identical up until time t will be identical after t,
unless some indeterminacies happen (which also arise at the molecular level) over which we also have no control. This one to one, input-output relationship is absolutely crucial to the theory.
3. Kane’s Businesswoman
Arguing for incompatibilist libertarianism is Robert Kane. Kane argues that even in the face of indeterminacies, our ability to perform acts of will are held intact. Self-forming actions, as he calls them, are the basis of free and responsible choice.
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Kane’s definition of a choice is simply, “to consciously and deliberately form an
2intention and do something.” One example is that of the businesswoman who
comes across a crime being committed on her way to a very important meeting. She can only do one of the two things and not the other and looks to be making the decision herself. All decision-making factors in her mind, Kane argues, are a part of her own character which is formed entirely through her own control. And whichever path she chooses to take, the consequences and responsibilities rest completely on her, and she will testify to this as well.
Again this is an account where we are asked to look at our intuitions and say that of course she is making the decision herself, and if you told her she wasn’t, she would look at you like you were crazy! But in this case again the determinist would respond by saying that no matter what she does, her decision is governed completely by her biology. If you consider two possible worlds identical up until the time of the decision, the determinist will argue that she will make the same decision both times. And yes she will see the decision as her own but that is because from a functional standpoint, believing you have free will and actually having it come out exactly the same. For whatever reason our brains have evolved so as to include this concept of agency as a part of our cognitive processes, and so it is natural to think we are causing what we do. But natural as it may be, it is still an illusion. 4. Daniel Dennett’s Compatibilism
Dennett is one contemporary philosopher who recognizes these appeals to our intuitions about free will, and criticizes them. The “intuition pumps” as he calls
2 Responsibility, Luck, and Chance. 1999. 158.
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them, often use common sense examples that make us say “duh!” while perhaps not
being philosophically sound. This is not to say, however, that Dennett is discounting the fact that our intuitions do scream that we have free will. In fact, he believes a theory that helps us justify these intuitions is better than one that does not.
As a naturalist, Dennett wishes to reconcile natural laws with free will. He concedes to the point of determinism, but also claims that indeterminism is unavoidable as well. As an example, we can look at the electron: for the most part, these particles revolve around their respective nuclei until some process takes place where they are transferred to another atom. Their exact location in an atom, however, is entirely probabilistic. “Electron clouds” are used to illustrate the high probability zones for the electrons around a nucleus, but it is also entirely possible (and seemingly random) that at any given moment, the entire electron cloud – all
the places where an atom’s electron could possibly be – includes the entire universe.
While laws of electrostatic attraction and the like largely guide where one of these particles will be, they are still subject to “quantum indeterminism” as Dennett calls it; randomness is not only possible, but inevitable.
Using this idea on a more macro-level, Dennett says in his Valerian model that in a deterministic world, we can say for example that up to time t, everything is
the same. At time t, however, an indeterministic wrench can be thrown into the
gears, and this is the point where our decision-making abilities come into play. The indeterminacies open up alternate possibilities, upon which we are able to deliberate and say finally, ‘That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and
now I’m going to act,’ in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in
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the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with
3the acceptance of responsibility in any case.”
Another way of presenting his argument is by saying that at its base, incompatibilist determinism turns all humans into processing devices which have programming (natural law) that govern what will happen in response to each and every stimulus. So if we were to compare ourselves to a chess computer, each of the opponent’s moves, combined with all their past moves and all past moves ever, would necessarily generate a certain counter by us. These counters are our decisions and actions. And if the opponent’s actions are programmed out in the
same way (or programmed out at all) so as to respond to the other’s, we could say that the computers’ final moves would be causally determined by their first. And just as we would say this chess machine has no free will, it looks like the determinist would say the same about us as people.
But if we were to install some sort of quantum randomness generator into the computer’s system, we could not say – as we would in the first case – that the
final move is decided as soon as the first piece is moved. For at any time a glitch could occur, changing the game entirely. These indeterminacies, in the real world, are what open up different possibilities – there is no way to tell whether some near-
future indeterminacy will “accidentally” move a pawn instead of a knight, or a queen, etc. – and so there is no way we can definitively argue that the state of affairs at time t fully governs t + 1, and so on.
5. Compatibilism Concluded
3 Brainstorms. 1981. 295-297.
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Dennett’s form of compatibilism is extremely compelling because it both
allows room for determinism in the natural world and also appeals to our intuitions about how we have control over our own actions. Giving determinism some credit is very important, as it seems impossible to discredit entirely. It would be foolish for anyone to claim that there is no natural law relationship between objects, especially at the microscopic level. But at the same time, when those notions of natural law impede upon our entirely obvious ideas of free will, we are quick to reject them. Admitting both of these concepts into a theory of compatibilism is essential.
If we are to subject Dennett’s theory to the same objections as Frankfurt’s and Kane’s, it does seem to have some problems, however. Even if we admit Dennett’s Valerian model, and an indeterminacy grants me several possibilities for action, a hardcore determinist would be quick to respond that one’s response to each of those is still governed by all those past experiences and all those natural laws.
Say you are driving down a country road. It is perfectly straight and has been for miles, and will be for many miles more. This road is your life, says the determinist, and there is only one way you can go (your car has no reverse gear, sorry). Dennett comes in and points to the road and claims that it is not always straight, however. In fact, it has the tendency to split randomly into many forks, twists, and turns. So the determinist’s claim that you have no alternatives is gone out the window. Boom, you have free will, because randomness presents you with different ways to drive, and you can choose whichever you want. But again this misses the point; the hardcore determinist can allow for these indeterminacies and
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still say that no matter how much quantum randomness happens, processes in your body over which you have no control will still dictate how you respond to each fork. So while it seems you are given plenty of opportunities for choice, your neurons have contingency plans for every alternative, plans that were drafted by scientific relationships long before you were born.
Probably the most annoying part of this theory is that it looks to be considering itself true as a response to every objection to it. Every claim at free will can be met with a simple, “nope, that’s an illusion.” In other words, some
determinists look to be using their theory that free will is illusory to show that free will is illusory. Unless the theory is proven outright, this looks to be a fallacy.
But I believe there is another objection to this view. Most people would not object that our bodies are governed by biological and chemical processes, the laws of which are out of our control. The sticking point, though, is that reductionist determinism takes these internal cause-effect relationships and points to them as an external force against our notions of free will. I do not argue that my brain cannot be broken down to neural reactions, then to neurons themselves, then biology, chemistry, and physics. What is objectionable is that those things are outside of me.
It is true that my arm is attached to my body through a process over which I had no control: an evolutionary process that occurred millions and billions of years before I was born dictated that these bones, muscles, tissues, neurons, all be connected in this way at this point of my shoulder. But it is still my arm. It is a part of me just as my brain is. And if my brain is indeed a part of me, then so are its neurons, and all of the relationships those neurons share with each other, even if I
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didn’t make the rules of those interactions. They are completely mine and no one
else’s. If I can’t call my brain and my arm my own, then what can I?
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Dennett, Daniel. Dennett on Free Will. 2011.
Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. 1996.
Kane, Robert. "Responsibility, Luck, and Chance: Reflections on Free Will and
Indeterminism." The Journal of Philosophy 96.5 (1999): 217-40