"For an agent's action to be free it cannot be caused by preceding events.
But not to be so caused would make this event random, and thus not genuinely something the agent did.
Therefore, no genuine action is free."
Evaluate this argument.

First, I will examine the logical form of this argument and show that it is valid.  Then I will evaluate the premises to judge whether they are likely to be true and the argument sound.In passing   I will offer some comments on the current state of the debate amongst philosophers on the debate over Free Will versus Determinism. 

The argument in the essay's title contains four separate clauses.  Expanding the syntactical short-hand, these four clauses can be seen to constitute an argument with three premises and a conclusion:

P1:   "For an agent's action to be free it cannot be caused by preceding events."

P2:   "Actions not caused by preceding events are random actions."

P3:   "Random actions are not genuinely something the agent did."

C:     "No action that is genuinely something the agent did is free"

The actual logical form of the argument can be better seen if we abstract from the words and replace them with some symbols.  Therefore, let:

A = "action that is genuinely something the agent did"

F = "free action"

R = "random action"

C = "action caused by preceding events"

Letting the "=" stand in for the "is/are" cupola, the argument in the essay's title looks like this:-

P1:            F = Not-C

P2:            Not-C = R

P3:            R = Not A

C1:           Not-A = F

We can see by this analysis that the argument is at least valid.  Given that the premises are true, the conclusion is also true.  So now let's determine whether the premises are likely to be true.  I will do this by outlining the three main positions on the Free Will versus Determinism debate.

Casual Determinism

Causal Determinism is the philosophical doctrine that everything is governed by causal laws.  All events, happenings, agent actions, and human behaviour are the inevitable result of preceding events.  Science is the primary source of arguments for Determinism.  'Science is determinist; it is so a priori; it postulates determinism, because without this postulate science could not exist." - Henri Poincare.  Our Western / Scientific culture (science and engineering) assumes that everything has a cause.  If everything has a cause, then human behaviour must also have its own causes.  And if human behaviour is caused in the manner assumed by science, then where is there a place for "Free Will"?

Determinism is, however, a philosophical position and not a question of empirical observation.  The apparent randomness of some observations (like, for example, quantum mechanics) need not conflict with the philosophical presumption of Determinism.  It must also be noted that Determinism, as a challenge to Free Will, need not demand universal causality.  A "partial" Determinist could permit non-causal events within some parts of the world (again, like quantum mechanics) as long as human behaviour at least is fully causal.  What matters for an evaluation of the essay's title argument is that a moral agent's "genuine actions" be fully caused by preceding events, and "partial" Determinism will be sufficient.

A Determinist will accept all three premises to the title argument, and will argue that therefore the concept of "Free Will" contained in P1 is incompatible with Causal Determinism.  (Mind you, a pedantic "Full" Determinist might object that premise P2 is false because there are no such things as uncaused or truly random events.  But I'll ignore that quibble for present purposes.)   Since Determinism is true, therefore Man does not have Free Will.  What we refer to by "Free Will" is an illusion.  Perhaps a necessary one, in order for us to function properly.  But an illusion none the less. 

"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, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are.  Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us."
                                                                                                                                                                      Peter Van Inwagen (1)

J.J.C. Smart offers an argument from logic in support of the key premise P3.  He argues that there is no logical room for what some call "contra-causal freedom" and the essay's title argument would refer to as a "random actions that are genuinely something the agent did."   He is arguing that it is not logically possible that P3 be false.

"If we accept the definitions [of "determinism" and "pure chance"] the following propositions are contradictories:
                      p: this event happened as a result of unbroken causal continuity.
                      q: this event happened by pure chance.
                      That is, q if and only if not-p.
                      But p or not-p.
                      So p or q, and not both not-p and not-q

Therefore there is no third possibility outside of p and q.  What room, then, does logic leave for the concept of "contra-causal freedom"?

Unfortunately, the challenge that the Determinist faces is the relevance of their conclusion.  Like medieval Theologians arguing over the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, it seems difficult to understand how the Determinist conclusion matters.  The vast majority of people in general, and philosophers in particular, will revert at the first opportunity to the general feeling that we do have Free Will.  And if that feeling is an illusion, then the critical social importance of our notion of Moral Responsibility demands that we ignore the Determinist conclusion, and proceed on the alternate hypothesis that we do indeed have Free Will.  Even if the Determinists are right, we simply cannot operate on that basis.

Free Will Libertarianism

Free Will Libertarianism is that metaphysical doctrine that maintains that an individual, regardless of forces external to him, can and does choose at least some of his actions.  The concept of "Free Will" is defined largely by its contrast with Determinism.  Libertarianism argues that free will is logically incompatible with a deterministic universe and since agents do have free will, therefore determinism is false. There are essentially only two arguments for the position of Free Will Libertarianism.  The more fundamental is the argument from Moral Responsibility that maintains that the existence of morality and ethics presupposes Free Will.  There is also the argument from Common Sense that maintains that whatever it is that we do when we choose or decide, it is self-obvious that we could have chosen or decided otherwise, and it is this ability "To choose other than we did" that is Free Will.

In the history of the debate, there are essentially two different approaches to Libertarian arguments.  By far the more common approach in the modern literature is the scientific one.  This approach is to attack the underlying premises of Determinism that all actions are caused - in other words, objecting that premise P3 is false.  Quantum Indeterminacy is a favourite escape hatch.  As is the "Multiple Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Physics.  The Libertarian argues that there are some random actions that do qualify as genuinely something the agent did.  Hence the conclusion is false - there are Free actions.  And the title argument is unsound.

But scientific Libertarians face a serious challenge.  It is not at all clear just how quantum randomness (or chaos theory, or some other suitable source of indeterminacy) can be translated into Free Will and still maintain the agent's "ownership" of the result.  If your actions are not the result of your moral evaluation of the desirability of the consequences, then you are not normally held morally responsible for the results.  If your choice of action is the result of some random (indeterminate) event, then your choice is not the result of your moral evaluation of the projected consequences.  Depending on scientific indeterminacy to escape from Determinism is morally equivalent to rolling the die instead of making your own choices.  A factor that Robert Kane, for example, recognizes, but does not adequately address -

"if free will is not compatible with determinism, it does not seem to be compatible with indeterminism either. . . . An undetermined or chance event, it is said, occurs spontaneously and is not controlled by anything, hence not controlled by the agent. . . . Such undetermined events occurring in our brains or bodies would not seem to enhance our freedom and control over our actions, but rather diminish our freedom and control."
                                                                                                                                                                      Robert Kane(3)

Despite recognizing the challenge, Kane proceeds to ignore it and continue to argue that there are none the less random actions that are genuinely something the agent did. 

"All free acts do not have to be undetermined on the libertarian view, but only those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely the "will-setting" or "self-forming actions" (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility."
                                                                                                                                                                      Robert Kane(4)

"Agents . . . cause or bring about their self-forming actions or SFAs and they do so voluntarily by making efforts of will.  These efforts of will are in turn causally influenced by the agents motives, reasons, and other states of mind, but their outcomes are not determined by these motives and reasons.
                                                                                                                                                                      Robert Kane(5)

The more historical Libertarian approach is Mind-Body Dualism. The dualist approach is to maintain that whatever it is in the human mind that exercises Free Will (let's call it a "Soul" for sake of a label), it is not subject to the constraints of materialist science.  The Dualist approach was made popular by Rene Descartes, but has lost favour in modern literature because of its religious overtones.  Never the less, a Dualist would object that P2 is false - actions caused by the "Soul" are not caused by preceding events, but are not random.  Hence the conclusion of the argument is false, and the argument is therefore unsound.

Regardless, dualist libertarians like Descartes also face a serious challenge.  Just how can some form of immaterial soul interact with a body that is clearly material?   Biologists have tracked the nerve impulses that activate our muscles, and have determined that they originate somewhere in our brain.  The dualist, therefore, must provide a means whereby the immaterial soul, not subject to the constraints of materialist science, initiates the clearly materialist nerve impulses that generate our behaviour.    So far, there has been no success at providing such an explanation.


Both Determinists and Libertarians maintain that our concept of "Free Will" is incompatible with our concept of "Determinism".  In their arguments, one or the other is assumed to be true, so the other must be false.   Compatibilists maintain that this is a false dichotomy, and that in fact both positions are (or at least can be) compatible.  What the compatibilists maintain is that the appearance of a dichotomy, the appearance of an incompatibility, arises as the result of a misunderstanding of just what it is that we mean by the label "Free Will".

The compatibilist's arguments rest on the alternative possible understandings of the phrase "He could have done otherwise than he did".  The Determinist will argue that given the entire set of circumstances that did exist at the time, he could not have done other than he did.

"the Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and its central idea can be quickly conveyed: (1) Nothing can be causa sui - nothing can be the cause of itself; (2) In order to be truly responsible for one's actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects; (3) Therefore, nothing can be truly morally responsible."
                                                                                                                                                                      Galen Strawson(6)

What all the various Compatibilist arguments amount to is a re-conception of the concept of "Free Will" that allows for the truth of Determinism as Strawson has characterized it, while maintaining the indisputable fact that (as Nagel puts it) from the inside it is obvious we do indeed have Free Will.

"From the inside, when we act, alternative possibilities seem open before us: . . . and one of the possibilities is made actual by what we do.  The same applies to our internal consideration of the actions of others"
                                                                                                                                                                    Thomas Nagel(7)

The best definition of the Compatilibilist's position is that outlined by Daniel Dennett(8).  The Determinist and the Libertarian are talking from different "Stances", at different levels of discourse, in language that is inappropriate (and thus apparently incompatible) to each other's argument.  The Determinist is talking about things at the Physical level - and at the Physical level the Universe might well be Deterministic.  The Libertarian is talking at the Intentional level - and at the Intentional level, the agents in question might well have Free Will.  The points made by the Determinist are no more appropriate to the discussions at the Intentional level (and vice versa) than are discussions about electron flow in semi-conductors to debates about the dynamics of the World Wide Web.  To bridge the levels, what is required is a definition of an "agent" (or a "will") in physical terms.  And this neither side has accomplished.

On this basis, the Compatibilist will consider that the first premise of the title argument is false because it commits a frame error - it being inappropriate to define a term within the Intentional Stance in terms relevant to the Physical stance without that definition.  Similarly for the third premise.  Hence the conclusion of the title argument is false.  And the argument is unsound.



The results of this analysis of the essay's title argument is that

(a) If one maintains a belief in Causal Determinism, then one will agree that the title argument is sound.  However, if one maintains a "full" Determinist position that all events, without exception, are caused, then one will argue that P2 is false because there are no such things as actions that are not caused by preceding events.  So a Determinist will agree that the conclusion is true, but whether the Determinist maintains that the argument in the essay's title is sound or not will depend on whether the Determinist position is metaphysical ("full") or merely pragmatic ("partial").

(b) If one maintains a belief in Free Will Libertarianism, then one will argue that P3 is false because it is a consequence of all flavours of Libertarianism that "free" actions are not caused by, and hence cannot be predicted on the basis of, preceding events.  And that entails that "free" actions are random (or at least sufficiently unpredictable to be called random).  The Libertarian will argue that the conclusion of the argument is therefore false - and the argument unsound.

(c) If one maintains a Compatibilist position that Free Will is not inconsistent with causal determinism, then one will argue that P1 is false because it is based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes "free will" (or "an agent").  The Compatibilist will, however, agree with the Libertarian that the conclusion is also false because agents do have free will and perform free actions.  Hence the argument is unsound.


Notes & References

(1) Van Inwagen, Peter; "An Argument for Incompatibilism" in Free Will, 2nd Edition; Gary Watson, (ed.); Oxford Readings in Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford England. 2003. ISBN 978-0-19-925494-1. Pg 39

(2) Smart, J.J.C.; "Free Will, Praise and Blame" in Free Will, 2nd Edition; Gary Watson, (ed.); Oxford Readings in Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford England. 2003. ISBN 978-0-19-925494-1. Pg 63

(3) Kane, Robert; "Libertarianism" in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford England. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4051-3486-6. Pg 23

(4) Kane, Robert; "Libertarianism" in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford England. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4051-3486-6. Pg 26

(5) Kane, Robert; "Libertarianism" in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford England. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4051-3486-6. Pg 173

(6) Strawson, Galen; "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility" in Free Will, 2nd Edition; Gary Watson, (ed.); Oxford Readings in Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford England. 2003. ISBN 978-0-19-925494-1. Pg 212

(7) Nagel, Thomas; "Freedom" in Free Will, 2nd Edition; Gary Watson, (ed.); Oxford Readings in Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford England. 2003. ISBN 978-0-19-925494-1. Pg 232

(8) Dennett, Daniel C.  Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. 1984.  ISBN 0-262-54042-8.

                                              The Intentional Stance.The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. 1998. ISBN 0-262-54053-3.

                                              Freedom Evolves.  Viking Penguin Press, New York, New York.  2003.ISBN 0-670-03186-0.


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