08 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis III

Chapter 4 continues our discussion of the notion of alternative possibilities (AP) as critical to freedom and, thus, moral responsibility.

Kane cites a discussion by Peter van Inwagen, who wrote, "If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born....Therefore the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us." The point is that we would then have no power to do anything deserving praise or blame.

This is called the "consequence" argument. Against such arguments, compatibilists often contend that we are free in any circumstance in which we "could have done" X had we wanted to do X. I'm using quote marks because this is headed in an ordinary-language direction. It doesn't matter that the fact that we didn't want to do X is a consequence of other facts back to the Big Bang  -- what matters is simply that in a range of cases we do what we want, for good or ill.  Thus, we have the "power" to do right or wrong after all.

Kane thinks that Inwagen's argument is a good one, although not decisive, and the counters to it depend upon unpersuasive non-intuitive usage of ordinary-language words like "could have" or "power." Following a suggestion in an essay by quintessential ordinary-langauge philosopher J.L. Austin, Kane asks us to think a golfer on the green lining up a three-foot putt.

This golfer has made three-foot putts before. He has also missed from that distance. Indeed, you can get elaborate here: he has made putts at three feet with slants of the ground comparable to this, wind conditions etc., comparable to this, etc. -- and, in his long golfing career, he has also sometimes missed them. This is a level fo difficulty beyond a predictable gimme but well short of hopelessness for him.

Now, in ordinary language, we would happily say that our golfer has the power to make the putt. But if he misses, we will not treat this as proof that he didn't want to make the putt. Thus, the significance of terms like "power" are not very closely tied to the "could have done X if he wanted to" conditionals employed by Inwagen's adversaries. Arguments that rely on their synonymity, then, fail, and Inwagen's case for incompatibilism looks plausible again.

Plausible but, in Kane's eyes, not dispositive. To get beyond the impasse between compatibilist intuitions and incompatibilist intuitions, we have to get beyond the notion of AP. There is another intuitive characteristic of freedom we have to bring in as a supplement at this point: the idea that in some sense I am the one with Ultimate Responsibility (UR) for my actions.

Free will consists not just in AP, nor just in UR, but in AP + UR. Arguments like Inwagen's fail to persuade because UR is left implicit, tucked inside words like "power." Hereafter, Kane vows to be explicit about it.

And here I will leave things until next week.  Happy Easter.


Sylvia Jane said...

Why aren't you commenting on Sam Harris' little book "Free Will"?

Christopher said...

I just became aware of its existence this weekend. I'll likely have something to say eventually.

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.