“But, I live as if it weren’t true…”

I think one of the most, if not the most, significant indicator that one’s world-view (narrative, story, faith, which includes philosophical naturalism, scientism, empiricism, etc.) is false, unhealthy, or extremely weak is if it ever leads one to say something along the lines of “I believe such-and-such is true, but I don’t, or can’t, live my life as if it were true.”  I can’t imagine a more powerful inducement to cognitive dissonance as such a statement or sentiment.  My first thought is: If something is true, accurate, the way the world is, but we have to live as if such isn’t really the case, then in many ways, we are living a lie.  This almost seems a type of philosophical schizophrenia.  Whatever it is that one believes, he should be able to say, “My life doesn’t always reflect my beliefs, but I try to live so that they do and I am aware of it when they don’t; and I desire my life to align or correspond with my beliefs, because I think what I believe is true.”
I just finished a series of posts on the justified use of violence and how we think about morality in general.  One could see the great reluctance, if not outright dismissal, of the idea that a moral skeptic’s views lead to a reduction to power/freedom.  Why?  My theory is because even if someone believes the skeptic’s views to be true or is sympathetic to them, they don’t want to think it would mean such (a reduction to power).  I think I made a fairly logical case that it does lead to such a reduction, but as the Stanford link made clear, what the moral skeptic believes metaphysically is actually the case, they for the most part do not live “as if” such were the case:
“…All that moral skeptics deny is that their (or anyone’s) moral beliefs are justified. This meta-ethical position about the epistemic status of moral beliefs need not trickle down and infect anyone’s substantive moral beliefs or actions.”-Stanford link (See previous post(s))
In other words, I may believe my moral beliefs are unjustifiable even to myself (just as an aside, in my view, if one cannot justify their moral actions or omissions to themselves or anyone else, then one is always acting out of pure power, but that’s just me…) on a metaphysical, epistemic level, but “substantively”, down here in my actual lived life, I don’t let what I think is actually true trickle down and “infect” my actual moral beliefs and actions.  Okay.  If such is really “true”, why not?  I find this to be a grave flaw in any world-view that would produce such an epistemic view of morality.
Many of the comments were quick to point out that, regardless the skeptic’s beliefs, if he still abhorred all the things that objectivists did and acted “morally”, what was the problem?  And, can we look at an actual moral issue or topic?  Well, no one said such was a problem to begin with (that wasn’t the point), and it is irrelevant to any single moral issue if the point is the skeptic, one, doesn’t believe morality exists by referent and, two, believes we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, to ourselves or anyone else.  If we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, then asking about any single example is irrelevant.  To then ask for a single moral example would be like asking a person who didn’t believe in witches, to please tell us which type he didn’t believe in.  Well, it wouldn’t matter—he doesn’t believe any of them exist!  Of course, this very basic problem was lost on all.  Anyway, more importantly for this post, it demonstrates the moral skeptic rarely, if ever, lives “as if” his views were actually the case, or true.
A perfect example of what I am talking about is summed up in this essay.  The title says it all: “There is no such thing as free will, but we are better off believing in it anyway” Again, wow.  So we know this to be true, proven by science (not), and yet let’s act as if it weren’t true.  I can imagine moral skeptics making a similar statement regarding morality.  We know it doesn’t exist ontologically (duh, science), but let’s act as if it does.  Basically we are being told that even though we all know goblins and fairies do not exist, let’s all act as if they do.  One should really question and wonder about any world-view that would have this philosophical undercurrent or this sense we should ignore the truth—pretend it doesn’t exist.  And this is no trivial or small matter.  We are talking about our very freedom to choose, which is intrinsically related to ethics—morality and responsibility.  It touches everything, both the smallest choices and those with greater import.
Now, the writer simply assumes that the current “science” has proved or is greatly inclined toward proving, or is close to proving, there is no free-will in the traditional sense.  I think his assumption is wrong.  The reality is that at the philosophy-of-science, academic level, and other areas of academic philosophy, these are all disputed areas and hardly settled as is easily seen simply from perusing the literature.  It may be settled in the minds of some neuroscientists out there working in a lab or on their computer, but once brought into the arena of the philosophy-of-science in academia, certainty, or the idea it has been “proved” all melts away.
However, I don’t particularly care about that.  I am much more interested in the idea that we should live contrary to what we think is true about ourselves and the universe in general.  Here is where I give the nihilist respect.  He disagrees we should live contrary to the truth.  Truth is too important to the nihilist.  However, what about those who in principle agree with much, if not most, of the nihilist’s world-view on a metaphysical, epistemic level?  Well, it appears they have a problem facing up to their own beliefs when it comes to life in the trenches.  At the last, as their brothers and sisters get set to charge the barricades, they blink and fall back into the trenches.  It all sounds great in the abstract—it just doesn’t seem to work in real life.
Now, for those who have come to a place of philosophical naturalism or similar world-view/narrative, and understand well the choice they have made, I would say the great majority are college graduates, have been raised in fairly stable families, with mid-to higher middle-class type incomes and life-styles.  They were probably raised also with middle-class values, a tepid blend of American fairness and pragmatism, good manners, politeness, and a nod to a moderate to progressive Judeo-Christian sense of morality (whether consciously or whether imbibed thoughtlessly from the surrounding culture).  And I would also tend to think most of this cultural influence to still be present and active, even if after a later acquired metaphysical and epistemic belief system has in the abstract completely undercut it.
But what happens when these metaphysical and epistemic beliefs trickle down to those not so advantaged?  As I have posited many times, since none of us can prove, or found, our world-views in any sort of final scientific manner, in any empirical manner, since we all believe what we do (over-arching narrative wise) by faith, how can we know if one world-view is healthier, truer, or perhaps a less false way of viewing ourselves and the world than another?  Well, we can ask questions.  Questions like, “Under this narrative, can I live as if what I believe is true or not?”  Or, “Is what I believe something that an entire culture or civilization could also believe and understand, or is what I believe only accessible to the higher educated or those with resources and the other advantages of my culture?”  Or, “What does what I believe lead to when an entire culture has adopted it, in the area of morality or any area of life?”
Well, here in the noted essay, we can ask one of those questions.  As noted here:
“In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out.”
Here is what they found:
“When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that ‘people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.’
It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts.”
But wait, there is more:
“Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like ‘Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion’ were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.
Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that ‘all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,’ those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.
The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”
Wow.  So think about that.  If I have this world-view, and if a subsidiary part of it is determinism, this is what it can produce in people.  Given my world-view is not proved by science, is not certain, is possibly false, given I believe it by faith, why in the world would I choose to believe this?  Because it is “true” and proved by science?  Well, that is disputed.  It is not a settled matter.  None of us can say that.  It is not “science” to believe such, but rather a philosophical commitment.  So, given this, why would I believe it?  Why would I choose to believe something that is harmful in this way?
I think a significant reason philosophical naturalism is false, is because if we believe it and actually try and live as if it were true, it can cause or lead to these negative results in people.  I can’t imagine many people would want a world populated with a significant portion of people who have been led by a world-view (or just told its “science”) to “indulge [their] dark side.”
So what does one philosopher propose we do in light of these bad outcomes to the supposed “truth” of determinism?
“Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.”
Wow, imagine a world-view we cannot afford people to internalize, even though it’s the “truth”.  A core truth of the Christian narrative is that the “truth shall set you free.”  Here, with the world-view of philosophical naturalism and the subsidiary determinism, we see the exact opposite.  Here, the “truth” will harm you and potentially make you a worse person.
Dr. Smilasky goes on:
“Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this… Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”
Do I really need to say anymore?  It seems to me such a world-view is deeply flawed.  Imagine a world-view that leads us to assert: “…the true most go.”  In my view, this should lead us to see that any world-view/narrative, or a derivative part, that would have us conclude “the truth must go” is a false world-view/narrative.
But some are not happy with this response such as Sam Harris.
“The big problem, in Harris’s view, is that people often confuse determinism with fatalism. Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen—like Oedipus’s marriage to his mother, despite his efforts to avoid that fate.  When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives. If people better understood these fine distinctions, Harris believes, the consequences of losing faith in free will would be much less negative than Vohs’s and Baumeister’s experiments suggest.”
What?  So let me get this straight: Determinism is true, which is the idea that “our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.”  However, we shouldn’t be “fatalistic” about that because there might be a “different stimulus”, like “a different idea about free will” and we can behave differently.  What?  That might be the most incoherent chain of thought I’ve read in some time.  Is the “different” stimulus or “idea” the idea or stimulus that determinism is false?  Or is it a stimulus or idea that leaves determinism still true?  Because that would be a flat-out contradiction as if an “unbreakable chain of cause and effect” can be reconciled with a “different stimulus” which would “break” the “unbreakable” chain.  Nonsense.
And finally there is the view of Bruce Waller:
“Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.
For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behavior at different levels.
Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals—humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows—need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex and changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are. Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result.
Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head). As long as we continue to believe in this kind of practical free will, that should be enough to preserve the sorts of ideals and ethical standards examined by Vohs and Baumeister.”
Notice he is really side-stepping the problem.  He is basically saying that because our brains are powerful, and can generate choices, that this alone somehow provides a way out of the free-will conundrum.  But how?—it doesn’t address the determinist’s point.  If cause-and-effect is an unbreakable chain, then it is whether one’s brain is more highly evolved and powerful or whether it is the brain of an ape or dog.  Physics doesn’t care about either.  For him to say that on one level, there is determinism, but on another there is not, is to misunderstand what is being asserted by the determinist.  The determinist would say that physics works the same at any level we care to name.
To say there is “practical” free-will but not metaphysical or actual, traditional free-will is to simply assert that regardless of what we think physics tells us about the cause-and-effect chain of brain events and actions, people seem to understand and experience their choices and actions as an actual freedom.  The first part is question-begging and the second just descriptive.  Further, it completely discounts the possibility we could be describing an actual freedom of will (since that is what it seems people experience) and not an illusionary one.
So, even here, I don’t see a view of free-will that reflects a healthy or attractive narrative/world-view.  I think it reflects poorly on that narrative.  I think it another reason to then think such a narrative to be false.
Throughout this essay two problems underlie the narrative.  One is we want people to be and feel responsible for their actions.  The second is we want to recognize that “no man is an island” and in many ways we are responsible for each other and not totally responsible for ourselves.  I do appreciate Waller’s efforts to balance these two very important aspects to any discussion regarding what it means to be “free” or to have “free” will.  I view it sort of like this:  At a certain age (varies for each individual and probably culture), we become free to make decisions, to choose other than what we want or desire or even feel compelled to do.  However, there are many aspects to life where we had no choice in what happens to us, but we can choose how we will react and respond to what happens to us or to the cards life has dealt us.  None of us chose which family, which ethnicity, or culture we would be born into.  None of us chose what geographic location we would be born.  None of us chose what religion or lack thereof we would be born into by way of whatever our parents believed or didn’t believe.  None of us chose to be born into either poverty or wealth.  There is so much we had no power over that determines so much of who we are and what options and choices were open to us as we grew up and perhaps are even now.  Still, even in that knowledge, we are free to choose and do otherwise. Are we always strong enough to?  Of course not.  So what?  That is another issue.  But we know that sometimes we were/are strong enough.  We know we have chosen otherwise sometimes and many times, we are not even sure why we did—but we did.  I think the Christian narrative and other such narratives allow for both of these aspects to free-will to be present and not opposed to each other.  Clearly, given Waller’s attempts here, whatever narrative he is operating from, does not allow this and he has to try and reconcile the two.
As noted in the essay, I too especially liked President Obama’s comments where he reminded us that “You didn’t build that” meaning- you did not do that by yourself.  The idea of the “self-made man” is a myth really.  Even if there are the rare exceptions, people who literally for generations came from nothing but excelled enough in some area to rise above their past and circumstances and were “successful”.  Even then, for the Christian, we would say this person still didn’t do such by themselves but through the gracious gifts of a creator God, but they also still needed human help at some point.  Our lives are part of a great web of others and all these intersections along with the serendipity of life, of luck, of simply being in the right place at the right time, but also of hard work, vision, good choices, and will—all combine to create a great confluence of myriad factors bringing each of us to the moment we find ourselves.  It is, frankly, a great mystery.  A wonderful, beautiful, and even frightening mystery.  But we need not make this mystery into an opposition.
However, I do believe what Waller is after here is a cake-and-eating-it-too (as suggested in the essay) attempt to hold onto two ideas that end up contradicting or undercutting the other as a matter of logic.  If we are going to assert that our world is deterministic in a cause-and-effect machine like, mathematical fashion (pure physics; of course only from a Newtonian or Laplacean understanding of physics), if we are going to believe by faith the universe is causally closed, then free-will as traditionally understood is a myth.  If so, then people are not fundamentally any more responsible for their actions than a hurricane could be said to be responsible (See Harris’s comments).  There is no way to then say (logically anyway), well, yes, but as a practical matter, since people seem to believe they are free and responsible, since they seem to act that way, since they have big brains, we can just let the fact they are not really free go and just try to emphasize the communal aspect to mitigate the damage possible if we were to go with what we know is the actual case.
Well, why not consider the better and more reasonable alternative?  It could be that even though none of us are an island, we are still free in the traditional sense.  We are the product of much we had no freedom to choose, but we are also, even knowing such, free to choose how we will respond to what we couldn’t choose.  As is often heard, “It is not what happens to me that matters—I have no control over such, but how I choose to respond to what happens to me, which I do have control over, is what matters.”  That is the essence of free-will.  If we are created souls, if we are spirit, living in a one-story holistic existence, then there is no reason to oppose the two ideas that we are both the result of much that is beyond our control and still free in that knowledge to choose otherwise as our souls transcend a pure cause-and-effect universe, which would also mean the universe is causally open; in fact, the entire question rests on whether one believes the universe is casually closed or open—and neither “science” or physics proves either view.  However, one view, that the universe is causally open does seem to be consistent with and corresponds to our lived and felt experience of being free persons.
Given that, since it is not a question of what the science or physics proves or doesn’t prove, why not choose the story that most corresponds to our own lived experience of being free, that we feel and act, live, as if we are free and that we can choose otherwise—and doesn’t contain the conundrum of believing physics tells us something we have to then try and live as if it weren’t true, even though we know it is?  And what if we have confused “physics” with philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism?  What if “science” or “physics” tells us no such thing, but rather we are hearing a philosophical counter-story, another faith-based narrative?  If so, why not believe the story that doesn’t require such cognitive dissonance or discounting one’s lived every-day experience and is still compatible with everything we know from science and physics once we remove the philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism looking glass?

PS- Although it is not a discussion of free-will in a metaphysical sense, here is an interesting essay on how something we all experience plays into the practical aspects of free-will.
This entry was posted in Causal Closure, free-will, moral skeptic, Sam Harris. Bookmark the permalink.

121 Responses to “But, I live as if it weren’t true…”

  1. Hi Guys

    I've now read what I assume is the relevant O'Connor paper more carefully, and it is indeed concerned with a model of emergent agent causation, finding a way to pair uniquely with a physical brain such that it may escape the constraints of physical determinism and allow what is essentially a dualist interaction. Nowhere does he address the problem of what this motivation would amount to, and how one can avoid the conclusion it is itself randomly generated.

    It may be he has written a harder to find paper on this issue, but rather I suspect a bluff here, Darrell. Still, an interesting read.



  2. Darrell says:


    As I noted, the issue is addressed. It is addressed in many places and by many sources—not just O’Connor. It would appear just not to your satisfaction or that you have not even read them. Oh well. I agree whole-heartedly with Ron’s last comment. Again, if this is the most significant problem for this view, I will take it any day over the deep and consequential negative problems with every deterministic view out there. This is like the chap who is concerned about the mote in his neighbor’s eye when there is a plank in his own. In my view, we should be much more worried and concerned about deterministic views, whether hard or soft—they hardly compare to this problem.

    Also, take up the challenge. On your own blog (if you don’t have one—they are easy to create and free or you could collaborate with someone who does) or a forum of your choosing, break it down for us. Show us exactly where the writer Ron noted and O’Connor, Reid, and all the others get it wrong or where a fatal flaw lies. Anyone can throw out a few points in a comment section. Anyone can criticize from the gallery. Break it down—show us.

    I will allow Ron to respond if he wishes to these last comments and have the last word. If after 24 hours he does not, we will close this out. In the interest of my time, please do not respond any further unless it is to tell us you will be writing something on your own blog to watch for. I realize you were responding to Ron, but we need to move on or I don’t get to work on more posts (or my “real” work!). Again, thanks for the conversation.



  3. RonH says:

    Gee, Darrell… I didn't really have anything new to add, but now I feel sorta obligated. 😉

    Maybe my conscious experience is just the determined result of electro-chemical reactions. If so, then I clearly evolved to be 100% certain I am a free agent. The genes will out, and I can't see how it's not rational for me to go with it. As usual, I'm always open to being shown how changing my perspective is advantageous to me. Not really that persuaded right now though.

    Thanks for provoking another challenging discussion!


  4. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    We've asked what seems to me a very important question for the libertarian free-willer, namely how to avoid the randomness problem in the context of “I could have done otherwise”.

    Perhaps you don't understand what the question is. It could help if you rephrased it in your own words. If you do understand, then you're purposely ignoring it.

    If you had the beginning of an answer, you would have given it by now.

    Instead, you link to a paper and say “there it is”. But the paper does not address the question at all.

    Now, you're saying that “It is addressed in many places and by many sources”, saying in effect “find the answer yourself and criticize it, but somewhere else”. Not very helpful.

    And, ironically I would say, you're now using the “you too” anwser: “if this is the most significant problem for this view, I will take it any day over the deep and consequential negative problems with every deterministic view out there.”

    Show us exactly where the writer Ron noted and O’Connor, Reid, and all the others get it wrong or where a fatal flaw lies.

    First, you need to show where they address the question at all. But you can't do this, because they don't. It's not possible to find a flaw in a non-existent answer.

    It's too bad. I was really interested in what you have to say.

    Thanks anyway for the effort.


  5. Darrell says:


    Yes, that is what I am telling you. The randomness or “luck” problem has been addressed by O'Connor and by many others. Find those responses and tell us why they are wrong. I am interested in what you have to say in that regard. But do it on your own forum and on your own time. This post was not about the randomness problem and is not a forum for you to bring up whatever it is you want to talk about, just because it falls in the orbit of the free-will discussion. Further, I gave everyone plenty of time to respond as they wished.

    The “you too” response is the wrong one to give when it is the same problem being noted, which is not the case here. This problem is specific to the libertarian view. If I were responding “you too” it would mean I thought determinism had the same problem of randomness, which I don't. Instead, what I am saying, is that all these views have problems, including your view (something no one disagrees with). When considering the problems each has, the problem that most concerns you, in my view, is far less of a problem than those of the determinist position. That is my point–which is not “you too” at all.

    Now, here is your hat and coat. Thanks for the conversation but it is time for you to go home now. It is late. When you decide to give a detailed response to those who have addressed the randomness “problem”, since it bothers you much more than it does me, let us know and we will read it with much anticipation.

    Cheers. Good night.


  6. RonH says:

    Hi JP…

    First, you need to show where they address the question at all. But you can't do this, because they don't.

    This is neither accurate nor fair. As Maverick Philosopher Bill Vallicella observed (and to which I've referred multiple times), the third-person perspective and first-person perspective cannot be reconciled. What you call the “randomness problem” is simply the third-person perspective: If you can't in principle determine physical causality of a person's choice by observation, therefore by definition it must be random. From a third-person perspective this is undeniable. But from a first-person perspective, my choice is not random, at all. You're disregarding the first-person perspective in favor of the third-person, even though you can only make third-person observations from a first-person perspective. Saying “Libertarians ignore the randomness problem” is just repeating (ad nauseam, I might point out) that “Libertarians refuse to subordinate the first-person perspective to the third-person”. But THERE IS NO BLOODY REASON WHY THEY SHOULD, and the fact that they don't SIGNIFIES NOTHING (other than that they are possibly more honest about the weight they place on subjective experience). As Vallicella concluded, “What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them.” But that is precisely what you and Bernard are doing, and are insisting that if the libertarian cannot integrate the points of view he must do the same. To which I simply reply “Why the should I?!”


  7. RonH says:


    If I were responding “you too” it would mean I thought determinism had the same problem of randomness

    Here's the joke: It can't. Because on determinism, there is no randomness. The false dilemma that a choice is either determined or random is even more false than it looks because on determinism randomness doesn't really exist either. There's randomness in the sense “Determined but not practically predictable” (i.e. dice roll), but there cannot be “Not determined” because… well… determinism.

    Insisting on a resolution to “the randomness problem” is just a symptom of failing to understand the real problem, i.e. Vallicella's two-perspective irreconcilability.

    This is just a rehash of the same worldview argument Mexican stand-off you've been in with these guys for YEARS. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. I just like to peek in every once in a while to make sure everyone remembers that “I called it” ages ago. 😉


  8. A little unfair Ron.

    The argument being put does not rely at all upon the third person perspective. If you think that, you've misunderstood. I'll not explain here, as lights are going out, but the randomness argument explicitly allows the irreducible nature of subjectivity. And then examines its unfortunate implications.



  9. JP says:

    Hi Ron,

    You're responsing to an argument that I'm not making and, apparently, assuming I hold positions I have not even mentioned.

    What I have done is ask a simple and basic question about the libertarian position, in good faith, because I am genuinely interested in it. And having hoped that you guys could be of some help.

    I have framed the question of what means “I could have done otherwise” in terms of identical worlds A and B because, I think, this puts it in sharp focus. A agent P freely chooses a in world A and b in world B. To ask “why the difference?” is a legitimate question.

    What we end up with, as already explained, is a choice that is uncaused (physically or otherwise), made without reason or justification and for which no explanation can be given. There is not much difference between this and randomness.


  10. RonH says:


    The argument being put does not rely at all upon the third person perspective.

    Oh, but it does. Because from my first-person perspective, my choices can't be random. I choose. Even if I choose to do whatever the coin-flip picks, I chose to defer to the coin-flip. From the first-person perspective, my choice is neither determined nor random, and this isn't a “problem” in the least. Again, “randomness” is only perceived from a third-person PoV. And as for “determined” is concerned, you're still conflating “reason” with “cause”, and they're not equivalent.

    I'll believe your take on free will differs substantively from Burk's when I see you two get into an argument over something.


  11. RonH says:

    Hi JP…

    Sorry if I misunderstood your position. I'm used to you and Bernard more or less always being on the same page in these discussions, and perhaps instinct took over. My apologies.

    I think your identical world hypothetical is a bit rigged. What does it even mean to have two identical worlds? If the worlds are identical, then if the subject chooses path X in one world he chooses path X in the other. You're going to describe this as “determined”. If the subject chooses path Y in a different world, then from your PoV this is indistinguishable from a coin flip. Third-party PoV. But if you ask the subject, he'll tell you that his choice wasn't determined, since he could have chosen otherwise, nor was it random since he chose. Now you can either take what he says at face value and live with Vallicella's “mother of all oppositions”, or you can suggest that while he felt like his choice was neither determined nor random, it still must have been one of those anyways based on your third-party PoV. It sure sounded to me like you were doing the latter, though admittedly in a roundabout way by implying (at least it seemed to me) that since libertarians couldn't explain to you how they reconcile the two PoVs, one is somehow more justified in rejecting libertarianism. Of course, the difference between libertarians and others is precisely that libertarians don't attempt to reconcile the two PoVs. Well, most of them. The smart ones.

    The thing is — and here we come back to the “as-if” point Darrell raised in the OP — our first-person experience of being free agents who make undetermined choices is as universally real to us as anything in our conscious lives. If you want to claim that this foundational experience cannot be trusted, that it is incompatible with “objective reality” in which all events are fully determined by preceding events, then you're sawing off the limb you sit on since anything you think you know about “objective reality” is mediated through that exact same first-person experience.
    on the grounds that it doesn't comport with


  12. RonH says:

    Sorry, that “on the grounds that it doesn't comport with” line must have been a copy-paste relic.


  13. Hi Ron

    “Because from my first-person perspective, my choices can't be random. I choose”

    Nobody disputes this. It is exactly what I do too. But why, from the first person perspective, do we choose one action and not another? That's where the problem lies, and adopting the first person perspective can not, as far as I can see, provide an answer. You may of course have one. If so, that would be interesting.



  14. RonH says:


    But why, from the first person perspective, do we choose one action and not another? That's where the problem lies, and adopting the first person perspective can not, as far as I can see, provide an answer.

    There isn't “an answer”. And it isn't a “problem”. Why is there gravity? Why is there a weak nuclear force? Why is the speed of light 299,792,458 m/s? If I can't give you an explanation for why gravity exists (and I can't), that doesn't mean you're justified in concluding it doesn't (and that your experience of it doesn't comport with reality). But if it didn't exist, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.

    And nobody is saying “adopting the first person perspective” provides anything. Are you paying attention? Vallicella is saying the two PoVs cannot be reconciled. You cannot “adopt” one or another. You either accept the opposition or your don't. If you accept the opposition, then you stop demanding that people explain how choices can be neither determined nor random.

    You have a problem because you think free agency is a problem. I don't have a problem. And your having one in no way obligates me to.


  15. Hi Ron

    Your analogies don't hold. The thing is, you're making a claim that your actions are not random, and you're claiming there is no answer as to why you choose an action. Yet if you choose without reason, your choices are definitionally random.

    These are directly contradictory claims.



  16. RonH says:


    Yet if you choose without reason, your choices are definitionally random.

    Definitionally, not. Because if it's random, it isn't a choice. Choosing to not choose is a choice. Rolling the dice after so choosing isn't.

    you're claiming there is no answer as to why you choose an action.

    No, I didn't. Every choice is different. You keep asking for some platonic Answer to how some platonic Choice can be undetermined but not random. But that's nonsense, since those things aren't real. For a given choice I make, there may be a wide variety of factors that weigh into my choice. But my choice isn't determined by them. Nor is a dice roll involved. Again, you're conflating “reasons” with “causes”.

    Bernard, you just keep repeating yourself. What's the folk definition of insanity? Repeating the same thing over and over expecting different results? Either you need to hurry up and conclude I'm insane, or you're gonna be demonstrating that you are.

    Now, if you have a case for why I'll be better off if I change my perspective to align with your own, make it. But if your case hinges on the airtight argument you think you have (and keep repeating), then it's not working. Try something else.


  17. Hi Ron

    I think we may actually agree, but are simply using different terminology.

    You're saying that choice is not, by definition, ever random. I'm saying that the libertarian view commits you to choosing without reason. I'd call this random, but if you agree with the sentiment, but not the wording, we have no substantive disagreement.

    What do I mean by choosing without reason? Simply that the decision, or choice, can not be explained in terms of antecedents. Take the chocolate cake example. Perhaps health concern wins the day, perhaps the desire for sugar. The compatabilist says, 'well I have a reason for choosing, this reason being that in the moment the health concern matters more to me.' This valuing of health becomes causative. The libertarian can not say this, for they do not believe their choices are caused, in other words, they hold they could have chosen otherwise, under identical circumstances. (You may not hold to this yourself, in which case we're not even using the term libertarian in the same way, and have no argument at all.)

    Given the libertarian can not give this type of reason for their decision, I would call their decision random. It is not the result of some prior desire, value or condition. Now, you may not wish to call that random. Fine. Then we agree, but are choosing different words to describe identical conditions. Or perhaps you disagree with some element of this? If so, it's not quite clear which aspect you disagree with.



  18. RonH says:

    Hi Bernard….

    I think it's almost certain that we don't agree, but I appreciate the charitable attempt.

    I'm saying that the libertarian view commits you to choosing without reason.

    Why? Just because I'm free to choose doesn't mean I must do so without reason. I don't see how this follows. Can you explain?

    The libertarian can not say this, for they do not believe their choices are caused

    Again (for the umpteenth time), you conflate “reason” with “cause”.

    A reason is not a cause. A cause is a physical event that gives rise to another physical event. A “reason” is just an abstract thought in my mind. Furthermore, reasons alone aren't sufficient to determine a choice. I have a reason to eat the cake (“It tastes delicious”). I have a reason to not eat the cake (“It's full of calories I don't need or want”). I must choose to weight one of those reasons more heavily than another. And at that moment of decision I'm conscious of being able to go either way. And at another time I might go a different way than I go now. Even if I choose to eat the cake, I still have a reason to not eat the cake. The reasons and the choice are distinct, and the choice is irreducible. To say “Ah, but what caused the choice to weight one reason over the other” is to beg the question by assuming there must be a cause for the choice to favor one reason over another, and to deny the possibility of choice being irreducible. But our first-person experience is of that choice being irreducible. “Why was eating the cake more important to you at the time than concern for the calorie intake?” “It just was. Why are you badgering me?”

    “Random” is the opposite of “deliberate”. A deliberate choice cannot be random.


  19. Darrell says:


    I guess we weren't done. I will now switch the lights back on, but I am going to bed. As the owner of this blog and moderator, I will continue to listen from a distance however. I will allow the conversation to continue for a while longer. However, I will cut it short the moment I determine that a participant is simply repeating themselves and not addressing any counter-points or a participant's main point. It is absolutely acceptable to respond: “I get your point, here is what I hear you saying (repeat their point), but I continue to disagree for the same reasons already noted.” Thus, there is no reason to then repeat the same point again. See how easy that is.

    So, carry on then…but keep it down. I have to get up early you know. Some of us work. Feel free to re-supply the whisky and vodka cabinet.


  20. RonH says:

    Pro tip: Never give me a last word.


  21. Hi Ron

    Strange though it may seem to me, I don't think we are disagreeing here, or at least not significantly.

    When you write:

    “But our first-person experience is of that choice being irreducible. “Why was eating the cake more important to you at the time than concern for the calorie intake?” “It just was. Why are you badgering me?””

    That dovetails absolutely with my understanding of what one must hold in order to be a libertarian. I understand that libertarians don't like the 'it just was' being described as random, and fair enough. It sounds pejorative and so there's an instinct to avoid the term. For what it's worth, it's the 'it just was' element that does not accord with my intuitive first person experience of my own free will, so our first person experiences are not only irreducible, but also contradictory. What to make of that is surely another discussion.

    Anyway, perhaps we understand each other's point of view a little better now, if nothing else, which in the end feels like an excellent reason to interact with those with different viewpoints. Believe it or not, I have no interest whatsoever in winning arguments. What purpose would that serve? But when I find myself understanding something anew, that's a prize. So thanks for helping me along the way.

    All the best



Comments are closed.