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Betting Against Hard Determinism

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The perennial fear associated with the free will problem is the prospect of hard determinism being true. Unlike prevalent attempts to reject hard determinism by defending compatibilist analyses of freedom and responsibility, this article outlines a pragmatic argument to the effect that we are justified in betting that determinism is false even though we may retain the idea that free will and determinism are incompatible. The basic argument is that as long as we accept that libertarian free will is worth wanting, there is a defensible rationale, given the uncertainty which remains as to whether determinism is true or false, to refrain from acting on hard determinism, and thus to bet that libertarian free will exists. The article closes by discussing two potentially decisive objections to this pragmatic argument.

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  1. This ability is sometimes referred to as alternative possibilities control. A person has such control if it is true that, at time t and in a choice between an alternative X and at least one other alternative Y, he or she could have chosen either X or Y at t. The best definition of this ability, which is a necessary component of any definition of libertarian free will, is found in Kane (1998, p. 33).

  2. By determinism I here intend the theory which states that, for any set of occurrences, subsequent occurrences happen with a probability of 1.0 given the prior occurrences. In Kane’s words: ‘Any event (including a choice or action) is determined […] just in case there are conditions (such as the decrees of fate, antecedent physical causes plus laws of nature, or foreordaining acts of God) whose joint occurrence is (logically) sufficient for the occurrence of the event. In other words, it must be the case that, if these determining conditions obtain (e.g. physical causes plus laws of nature), then the determined event occurs’ (Kane 1998, p. 8). According to universal determinism, every occurrence is governed by determinism in the above sense. For our purposes, it suffices to discuss the prospect of human thought and action being governed by determinism, thus bracketing the question whether universal determinism is true. It is perfectly possible to hold that human action is governed by determinism while believing that indeterminism reigns in other parts of nature.

  3. Although this citation captures perfectly the main message of hard determinism, it should be noted that its source—Galen Strawson—is not exactly a hard determinist. Strawson argues that the traditional conception of free will is incoherent, and would be incoherent even if determinism is false. This view—that free will is impossible regardless of determinism being true or false—is sometimes referred to as the “no-free-will-either-way-theory”.

  4. For influential compatibilist analyses of free will, see e.g. Frankfurt (1988), Fischer and Ravizza (1998) and Dennett (2004).

  5. John Searle, for instance, has said that he ‘cannot think of any interesting problem of free will to which compatibilism provides a substantive answer’ (Searle 2001, p. 278).

  6. For this debate, see for instance Smilansky (1994), Honderich (1990) and Pereboom (2001).

  7. Saul Smilansky has recently advanced what I here refer to as a ‘useful illusion’ argument. Smilansky champions ‘Fundamental Dualism’, the upshot of which is that hard determinism and compatibilism are both partially valid—compatibilism does present distinctions between free and unfree actions that withstand the truth of determinism, but in failing to take seriously the ‘ultimate level’ at which incompatibilism operates, it remains an ‘ethically shallow’ position (Smilansky 2003). However, while libertarian free will is ruled out by ‘Fundamental Dualism’, it remains the case that the illusion of free will ‘helps maintain, and even in part creates, crucial aspects of our moral and personal reality’ (Smilansky 2000, p. 145). This does not mean that we ought to induce illusory beliefs, Smilansky notes, nor that we can live with beliefs we fully realise are false. His claim is rather that ‘humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue’ and that this deception plays a role that is ‘largely positive’ (ibid., p. 6).

  8. Reactive attitudes occupy a central place in the literature on the free will problem following P.F. Strawson’s seminal paper ‘Freedom and Resentment’, reprinted in Strawson (1974).

  9. It is contestable for a number of reasons. First of all, we may expect many people to have no opinion over the matter. Secondly, we may expect some people to be genuinely undecided about whether determinism is true or false. Thirdly, a society may exhibit varying proportions of determinists and indeterminists.

  10. I here follow Strawson (1974) in claiming that reactive attitudes, and the practices that are associated with them, cannot be fully accounted for in compatibilist terms. Reactive attitudes, that is, entail a backward-looking element and assume something like ultimate moral responsibility. Unlike Strawson, however, I do not believe it to be psychologically or practically impossible that a society purged of such attitudes may evolve.

  11. The modern fountainhead of this kind of argument, which extends back to Kant and Hegel, is Morris (1968).

  12. Samuel Scheffler has argued that commitment to inclusive naturalism for example explains why no prominent form of contemporary philosophical liberalism admits room for preinstitutional desert; see Scheffler (1992).

  13. This is why someone like Derk Pereboom prefers to label his own theory hard incompatibilism rather than hard determinism: even if irreducibly random processes affect our behaviour, they would still be beyond our control in the required sense; see Pereboom (2001).

  14. For the covering law-model, see Hempel and Oppenheim (1948) and Hempel (1965).

  15. Paul Humphreys has noted that, ‘As a psychological habit acquired from everyday experience, a belief in universal determinism is peculiar in the extreme, because events in the ordinary world are neither sufficiently predictable nor sufficiently under our control that an inference of inviolable regular succession would be warranted from our experiences’ (Humphreys 1989, p. 17).

  16. For examples of attempts to reconcile libertarian free will with naturalism, see e.g. Kane (1998), Searle (2001), Balaguer (2004) and Wendt (2006).

  17. It will not do to claim that the libertarian resorts to metaphysics while the determinist does not. As was made clear in the critique of logical positivism, to say something allegedly anti-metaphysic such as ‘the only thing which can truly be said to exist is matter’ is of course blatantly metaphysical. We cannot observe whether or not the statement is true; we assert it. Thus conceived, the statements ‘there is a libertarian free will’ and ‘there is no libertarian free will’ are equally metaphysical, or, at the very least, equally unverifiable.

  18. Dennett has argued that we should simply hold people responsible, since this is conducive for responsible behaviour: ‘Instead of investigating, endlessly, in an attempt to discover whether or not a particular trait is of someone’s making—instead of trying to assay exactly to what degree a particular self is self-made—we simply hold people responsible for their conduct (within limits we take care not to examine too closely). And we are rewarded for adopting this strategy by the higher proportion of responsible behaviour we thereby inculcate’ (Dennett 1984, p. 164). Similarly, some rehabilitation techniques try to change behaviour by bestowing a strong sense of moral responsibility on the offender. Even though the offender was not responsible for his or her crime, it might be an effective strategy to make him or her think the contrary, as this makes sure that the offender cannot trivialise future crimes by claiming she is a victim of circumstances; see Pereboom (2001, p. 184).

  19. Of course, we wouldn’t change society out of choice in the strong sense. If D is true, whether we choose to adopt the D-society or not is determined. But I assume that if we knew that D is true, we would naturally change society to cohere with that knowledge, the human mind striving to rid itself of inconsistencies.

  20. Sometimes referred to as the principle of indifference. The principle is a method for assigning epistemic probabilities. A prototypical illustration is flipping a coin. We know that the coin will land either heads or tails. Since we have no idea which side the coin will land on, we assign a 1/n probability to each outcome, where n represents the number of possible outcomes. In the case of flipping a coin there are two outcomes, so we get n = 2 (i.e. 1/2 = 0.5.) Similarly, rolling a random six-sided die gives a 1/6 probability of any outcome.

  21. As I said in the beginning, this argument only applies to those who feel that the values of free will and its associated practices cannot coexist with the truth of determinism. Compatibilists maintain that those values are, if properly analysed, not in any way threatened by determinism. They would therefore not accept that we must choose between a D-society without the values and an F-society with them—in their mind, the values associated with free will can exist in a compatibilist D-society. For convinced determinists who are uncertain about the compatibility question, however, there is a betting situation similar to the one I have dealt with, namely to decide whether to bet on a hard determinist D-society or not.

  22. Needless to say, there is a tradition, going back to Kant, which analyses the free will problem in what we may call the first-person view of practical reason, i.e. it engages with questions such as whether it is possible to believe that the outcome of one’s deliberation is determined and yet go on deliberating. (For a recent addition to this tradition, see Bok 1998.) My aim here has been to analyse determinism as a question of practical reason, or perhaps of the ethics of belief, which concerns whether or not we should believe in determinism (and act on whatever we believe its recommendations are) in the first place, i.e. to make a decision about whether (we believe that) determinism is true.


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I am grateful to the participants at the seminar for political theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Raino Malnes, Karl Persson, and two anonymous referees for comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Göran Duus-Otterström.

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Göran Duus-Otterström—Winner of the third annual Res Publica Postgraduate Essay Prize, 2007.

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Duus-Otterström, G. Betting Against Hard Determinism. Res Publica 14, 219–235 (2008).

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