Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Jonny versus John Wright on Freewill

Tonight I’m not going to post about Ted Honderich’s talk on his new theory of consciousness, interesting though it was, but rather about John Wright’s exemplary talk about Freedom and Determinism. The reason for this is that in my mysterious past I carved out a thesis on freedom and determinism under the tutelage of Professor Honderich himself. It has been established by science that I have got a learning difficulty, which was given to Honderich’s consciousness as a teaching difficulty. Consequently my views on freedom and determinism may be negatively defined by Ted’s views. So in reading my views on J.Ws talk, you might be able to deduce T.Hs views on determinism. Two birds with one stone.

John Wright’s talk was exemplary in my view since he laid out the whole debate very clearly and not only presented his argument, but the whole logical space in which his argument worked. Consequently, (perhaps aided by my learning difficulty) I was able to see with great clarity where the argument went wrong.

John’s argument was what he called a barrel argument, meaning that you partition up the logical, or conceptual space into mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive alternatives and eliminate each alternative. Usually the alternatives are that “e”, some event was either caused, or not caused. If it was caused, so the argument goes, it was not an act of free will, but if it was not caused then it was also not an act of free will. Therefore there are no acts of free will. Boom! Boom! both barrels.

Fast forward a few possible libertarian responses, including “Pink’s magic barrel”, and we get to the really interesting part of John’s talk. He tries to run the barrel argument by partitioning the logical space into 5 broadly speaking modal alternatives. The five alternatives were 1. Metaphysically impossible, 2. Contingent Random. 3. Contingent probabilistic. 4. Contingent historically/physically determined. 5. Metaphysically necessary. The argument goes that these categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive in that for all e, if e is an event, (I’m a little weak on this, perhaps it shouldn’t be event, but proposition) then it falls into one and only one of these categories. The twist is that these categories don’t mention causation, explicitly anyway, since the libertarian justly accuses the original barrel argument of ruling out free acts from the start by implicitly assuming that free choices aren’t causes, and that the only powers are causal powers.

It is clear that we can rule out 1 and 5 straight away. If “e” is metaphysically necessary or impossible, then “e” is not an act of free will. Boom! Boom! So now it looks like if John can rule out 2, 3 and 4 then he has ruled out acts of free will without mentioning cause. He then says that 2, if an event is random then it is not an act of free will Boom! 3, If an event is probabilistic it is not an act of free will Boom! 4. If an event is historically/physically determined then it is not an act of free will Boom! Therefore there is no act of freewill.

Dirty Harry: “I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?"

So John seemed to think that the libertarian would be forced to find a sixth barrel but that there is no conceptual space left for a sixth alternative.. All in all, a great talk which provoked a lot of interesting discussion.

But I wonder why a determined event is not an act of freewill? The idea is immediately appealing and needs no sophisticated argument. “Determined” can be substituted with “couldn’t have been otherwise”. A free choice necessarily could have been otherwise. Therefore free choices are not determined, and determined events are not free choices.

Given this, why is it that a contingent yet historically/physically determined event couldn’t have been otherwise? What ever your views about time, it is now determined that the allies won world war 2. But could it have been otherwise? Yes. The allies could have lost WWII. What is the probability that the allies won WWII? Well, call me anti revisionist, but I would say the probability that the allies won is 1. But what was the probability in 1940? Considerably less than 1. Or might it not be the case that it was completely random that the allies won? Suppose aliens observing earth in the early forties tried to predict who would win using incredibly sophisticated science of human behaviour. Might they not conclude that it was random what the outcome would be? My point here is these categories: determined, random, probabilistic, aren’t mutually exclusive. The same event could be random, historically determined and probabilistic relative to different times and theories and information states. So the five barrel argument fails, not because there is a sixth barrel, but because the five barrels aren’t mutually exclusive.

To freely choose that F through action A it must be the case that P(F A) – P(F ~A) > 0. As P(F A) – P(F ~A) tends to 1, the greater the freedom of the choice. If P(F A) = P(F ~A), then F is not freely chosen at all, whatever value for P(F A). What is not clear to me is why John thinks that this equality must hold in all cases. Surely even in the most determined of cases we want to say that things would have gone differently counterfactually. Whatever the probability that I wrote this blog post, counterfactually, if I hadn’t freely chosen to have done so, then it wouldn’t have been written. Therefore it was a consequence of my free choice.

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