31 March 2012

The Significance of Free Will

I've recently purchased The Significance of Free Will, by Robert Kane (1998).

I had heard that Kane is one of the few remaining free-willist/incompatibilists among contemporary academic philosophers. As to his academic credentials: he is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and editor of a widely respected collection of essays on the broad subject, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will.

Compatibilism in philosophy is the view that freedom in any important sense of the word is perfectly compatible with the deterministic character of human thoughts, will, and actions. This is, of late, the view for example of Daniel Dennett.

Those who reject that, then, are incompatibilists. Among incompatibilists, there are those who say that since the ideas of freedom and determinism are incompatible -- since determinism is true -- we'll have to learn to live without outdated notions of freedom. That seems to be B.F. Skinner's view in Walden Two for example. On the other hand, there are incompatibilists who agree that the two are incompatible but contend that it is determinism we have to learn to live without.

Regular readers will know that I am of the view that William James got these matters more-or-less right.

James was a compatibilist in one sense. He did believe that determinism is compatible with notions of moral worth or blame: "instinct and utility between them can safely be entrusted to carry on the social business of punishment and praise" in any event, he wrote.

But he was an incompatibilist in another, and to him a more important, sense. He believed determinism incompatible with a deep human desire for a world with a plurality of forces, and one in which novelties come about through the relations and contentions of those forces.  Furthermore, his reaction to that incompatibility was the free-willist one: we aren't so determined, after all.

"The indeterminism with its maggots, if you please to speak so about it, offends only the native absolutism of my intellect, -- an absolutism which, after all, perhaps, deserves to be snubbed and kept in check. But the determinsim with its necessary carrion, to continue the figure of speech, and with no possible maggots to eat the latter up, violates my sense of moral reality through and through."

Isaiah Berlin adopted a position much like James' in his Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Indeed, Berlin was if anything a more thorough incompatibilist than James. He wrote that if he were convinced that acts of human choice "were themselves wholly determined by factors not within the individual's control ... I should certainly not regard him as morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In such circumstances the concept of worth and desert, as these terms are now used, would become empty for me."  

Most philosophers who have written about the subject recently take a compatibilist stance. The dissenters adopt the determinist sort of incompatibilism. Free-willist incompatibilists -- outside the ranks of those working from a specific theological/ecclesiological program -- are quite few.  So I was happy to discover that Robert Kane exists.  I will have to see if the particulars of his argument warrant my happiness.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.