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Personal Identity & Time


Craig Ross on whether freedom is all it’s been made up to be.

Some believe that humans have free will; others that each of our actions and choices is caused by prior events. Compatibilism is the theory that we can be both caused and free. It is advocated by many modern philosophers, including the prolific and influential Daniel Dennett. But compatibilism is nothing new.

Hobbes famously said that man was as free as an unimpeded river. A river that flows down a hill necessarily follows a channel, but it is also at liberty to flow within the channel. The voluntary actions of people are similar. They are free because their actions follow from their will; but the actions are also necessary because they spring from chains of causes and effects which could in principle be traced back to the first mover of the universe, generally called God. So on this view, to be at liberty is merely to not be physically restrained rather than to be uncaused. For Hobbes, to be free is to act as we will, and to be un-free is to be coerced by others.

Hume was also a compatibilist. He said that we conclude that nature is full of necessity, in that we infer that one thing follows another from necessity. We also know that people have a nature, and that their actions follow from their nature. We act in the world from motives such as ambition or friendship, and history teaches us that this was always so. If people’s motives were not understandable, our experience would not help us in our dealings with them. People are fairly similar and we can also come to understand the nuances of the characters of particular people. It can be difficult to see why someone did something, but then it can also be difficult to see why a machine stopped working. This does not mean that there was no reason. We accept that carriages are mechanisms, but if anything the drivers are more reliable than the carriages. Sometimes the carriages break down but the drivers always wish to be paid.

Of course as individuals when we undertake an action from some motive we imagine that in the exactly the same circumstances we could have chosen to do something else. We do not think we act of necessity. But, as Hume notes, if we try to prove our absolute liberty by doing something ‘unpredictable’ then we are still acting from a straightforward motive: our motive is the desire not to be seen to be acting from predictable motives. When we look at other people and fail to predict their behaviour, particularly someone we know well, then we assume that we are ignorant about some fact, and that their behaviour is in principle intelligible and predictable, rather than that the person has suddenly become incomprehensible. For Hume and other compatibilists, liberty means being free to act as we will, but this does not mean that our actions come from nowhere: our passions, motives and desires provide us with the impulse which our reason (prudence) tries to satisfy. To be at liberty cannot mean acting without a motive, because that’s the definition of madness.

Dennett defends this broad thesis of motivated freedom with a range of interesting arguments. Consider for example the difference between a human being and the Sphex wasp. If this wasp is repeatedly disturbed during its egg laying it will simply continue its instinctive behaviour, apparently unaware of the source of the interruption or the likely futility of continuing with the egg laying. Yet humans can respond flexibly and imaginatively to equivalent difficulties, which indicates that we have a kind of freedom that a simple creature like the wasp does not have.

For Dennett there is also a meaningful distinction between determinism and inevitability. The Earth, for example, has undergone a recent explosion of ‘evitability’. Once it might have been in evitable that the Earth should be struck by an asteroid. But the planet has, perhaps deterministically, evolved human beings, who may conceivably destroy an incoming rock. It is no longer inevitable, so it is evitable. In the same way it is not inevitable that those disposed to heart disease will go on to develop it. We have, perhaps deterministically, produced an understanding of the causes of heart disease, and we can modify our behaviour on this basis. Again, what was once inevitable is no longer so.

So we may not have what Dennett calls ‘behavioural choice’,the absolute and unimpeded God-like ability to choose out of nothing – but we can flexibly respond to and change our environment, an environment that among other things contains knowledge of how other people have acted and thought.

Why Compatibilism Is Mistaken.

There are some major difficulties in compatibilism, which I think damage it irreparably.

Take Hobbes’ claim, largely accepted by Hume, that freedom is to act at will while coercion is to be compelled to act by others. This does not give us a sure reason to choose this ‘freedom’.

Imagine that you were a free-floating spirit, equal to God in your capacity to choose. God gives you the unwelcome news that shortly you are to be placed on Earth, and that you will be endowed with a range of fundamental passions, chosen entirely at the caprice of God. Would you choose to be free, in Hobbes’sense of acting at will, or might you consent to being coerced?

It is very far from clear that you would automatically choose to be free. Much would depend on the nature of the coercion. If you did not know what your fundamental desires were going to be, you might well decide to hedge your bets and back the field. It might be far better to be coerced by others (perhaps most people are good) than to be free to pursue un-chosen but possibly dubious desires. A free-floating ethically-minded spirit that feared an imminent endowment of psychopathic desires would certainly wish for an alert constabulary and swift incarceration: this spirit would wish to be coerced.

This thought experiment makes it clear why coercion by others might be morally preferable to being caused to act upon one’s desires. It seems very odd, though, that we might have good reasons to choose what compatibilists define as coercion, and reject what they claim to be freedom.

Nor is it obvious that if we were on Earth with a range of un-chosen passions, we would choose to have the intellectual ability which Dennett thinks characterises human freedom, as opposed to the mindless behaviour of the Sphex wasp for instance. Imagine that, rather than for laying eggs, one had a disposition for random acts of extreme violence. Is one better off by having the wit to see that the .357 Magnum is overrated and that the 9mm is similarly effective, but with more shots? If one had the murderous impulses of an Eichmann or a Himmler, is one’s situation necessarily improved by being able to flexibly respond to the logistical problems of machine-gunning large numbers of people? Is the murderous intelligence involved in industrialising genocide ever a gain? Similarly, if we knew that we were going to have passions that we have not chosen, is it obvious that we would ask for the ability to pursue these passions flexibly and imaginatively? Perhaps if we knew that we were to have unknown passions and be held responsible for our actions, we would choose to be incompetent. Perhaps the priority would be first to do no harm: one could not risk being good at being bad.

It is not obvious then that we would choose to be caused by our own desires rather than coerced by others; and nor is it obvious that we would choose to be able to successfully pursue our desires if we did not know what those desires were to be.

It is interesting to note that a compatibilist would presumably have to accept that the Terminator as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is free, in that it has a desire (to kill John Connor) which it pursues with flexibility, insight and intelligence. It is certainly hard to see why the Terminator is un-free simply because it was given its (programmed) passion by an identifiable individual, as opposed to taking pot luck from God or genetics.

As to Dennett’s claim that the planet has evolved ‘evitability’, it seems obvious that if strict determinism is true then human evolution is also one event after another, and the destruction of asteroids by humans follows inevitably from cause and effect, given the first composition of the universe. If we destroy an asteroid, for the strict determinist it was inevitable that we would. Indeed it is quite conceivable that humans are minor characters in a game played by the gods, involving striking planets with asteroids. Perhaps one of the moves in the game is to seed a target planet with humans to prevent your opponent successfully striking it with his asteroid. It is hard to think of an absolute reason why determinism might not be our lot. There seems to be no meaningful distinction to be drawn between what happens and what might have happened, on which we can hang some third theory of human existence to sit alongside determinism and libertarianism.

It seems that we are either caused, and our actions are caused events, or we are free. The middle, compatibilism, is excluded.

© Dr Craig Ross 2007

Craig Ross teaches at Langside College in Glasgow.

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