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Forking Paths and Freedom: A Challenge to Libertarian Accounts of Free Will

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to challenge libertarian accounts of free will. It is argued that there is an irreconcilable tension between the way in which philosophers motivate the incompatibilist ability to do otherwise and the way in which they formally express it. Potential incompatibilist responses in the face of this tension are canvassed, and it is argued that each response is problematic. It is not claimed that incompatibilist accounts in general are incoherent, but rather that any incompatibilist account that requires that an agent have (indeterminism-involving) alternative possibilities at the point of a free action fails.

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Notes

  1. What it is for an action to be a basically free action will be discussed in “Motivation for Metaphysical Openness: The Garden of Forking Paths” section.

  2. For a discussion of necessitarianism, see, e.g., Dretske 1977; Swoyer 1982; Armstrong 1983, and Tooley 1997. For a general discussion of laws of nature, see e.g., Armstrong 1983, and Psillos 2002. Another way to state determinism is “the thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future” (van Inwagen 1983, p. 3). Or, to elaborate, “at any instant exactly one future is compatible with the state of the universe at that instant and the laws of nature” (Mele 2006, p. 3).

  3. Some free will theorists are agnostic about the compatibility question – are committed to neither compatibilism nor incompatibilism (e.g., Mele 1995).

  4. If one is an apt target of the moral responsibility practices, then one qualifies as the type of agent deserving of moral blame (for a morally bad action) and moral praise (for a morally good action). Assuming one satisfies other conditions (e.g., epistemic conditions), it may be appropriate to apply certain moral reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment, gratitude, indignation) to her for what she has done (see, e.g., Fischer and Tognazzini 2011; Watson 1996).

  5. For arguments for ultimate sourcehood even if the world is deterministic, see, for example, Fischer (2006); McKenna (2008). For arguments for compatibilist-friendly readings of the ability to do otherwise, see, for example, Ayer (1954); Smith (2003); Vihvelin (2004); Fara (2008). For an argument for a compatibilist-friendly version of responsibility-grounding difference making, see Sartorio (2013). For arguments that an agent can act freely even if she could not have done otherwise, see Frankfurt (1969).

  6. Of course, both compatibilists and incompatibilists when explicating their accounts of free will give further conditions for free will. For agent-causal incompatibilist accounts of free will, see, for example, O’Connor (2000). For event-causal accounts, see, for example, Kane (1996), Balauger (2004), Franklin (2011), Franklin (2013). Clarke (2003) outlines (but does not endorse) a combined agent- and event-causal account. McCann (1998) is an example of a non-causal account. Steward (2012) argues that agency itself is incompatible with determinism. It should also be noted that a separate question from the compatibility question is whether any agents in the actual world have free will. Theorists in both camps, compatibilists and incompatibilists, are divided on this question. In contrast, Kearns (2013) argues for free will agnosticism – the position that no one knows whether free will exists.

  7. Some incompatibilist conditions for free action do not require indeterminism at the point of a basically free decision but rather earlier in the decision-making stream (e.g., Ekstrom 2000; Mele 1995; Mele 2006). However, provided that such accounts rely on an action indeterministically occurring at time t (e.g., the active formation of a preference at t that features as a proximal cause of a practical decision), what is said about a decision at t will apply to these accounts. For instance, Ekstrom (2000) holds a deliberative libertarian theory of free will in which indeterminism is required not at the point of a free decision or free action but rather at the point at which an agent forms the preferences that feature among the proximal causes of her decision. The formation of these preferences, she argues, is an action but need not be a free action (2000, pp. 106–109). Hence, insofar as Ekstrom is committed to indeterminism at the point of the active formation of preferences, the objections outlined apply to her account of free will as well. A notable exception is the modest libertarian proposal by Mele (1995; 2006). Mele similarly only requires indeterminism earlier in the deliberative stream, for instance, at the point at which a consideration in favor of or against a certain course of action comes to mind. However, the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a consideration is not held to be an action.

  8. For a discussion of basically free actions, see, for example, Mele (2006, p. 6).

  9. More precisely, t p is the first boundary point of the interval over which the decision occurs.

  10. For a description of this sense, see Searle (1984, p. 94).

  11. It should be noted that unlike a number of incompatibilists and compatibilists, Fischer’s own positive account of moral responsibility does not include the requirement that the agent has the freedom to do otherwise. Rather, Fischer argues that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism even if the freedom to do otherwise is not (see, e.g., Fischer and Ravizza 1998, p. 51). That said, the following excerpt provides a nice, clear description of the garden of forking paths picture of agency, a picture that others have alluded to when motivating their accounts of free will and moral responsibility.

  12. Another significant source of motivation for requiring metaphysical openness at the time of a basically free decision is the Consequence Argument (van Inwagen 1983). The import of the present paper for incompatibilist accounts that accept the soundness of the Consequence Argument will be discussed in “Getting Down to Cases: Incompatibilist Options and Replies” section.

  13. Other incompatibilists who evoke a garden of forking paths picture of free agency include Chisholm 1964; Wiggans 1973; Ginet 1990; Rowe 1991; Widerker 1995. Vargas, who offers a revisionist account of free will, states that he is “happy to acknowledge that current commonsense tends to require something more, something like the robust alternative possibilities described in the Garden of Forking Paths model of freedom” (2007, p. 161).

  14. This assumption entails that there is a unique splitting point and further that there cannot be both a final point of coincidence and a first point of noncoincidence. Time is densely ordered if and only if given two points in time t a and t b with t a  < t b (t a occurs prior to t b ), there exists a point in time t c such that t a  < t c  < t b . This disqualifies worlds from having both a final point t a at which the worlds agree and a first point t b at which the worlds disagree, since there would then necessarily exist a point t c at which the worlds both coincide (since t c  < t b ) and do not coincide (since t a  < t c ).

  15. Note that a world is only forking or non-forking in relation to another world at their splitting point and, moreover, that a world can be forking in relation to some worlds and non-forking in relation to other worlds. Regarding Figs. 1 and 2, note that there are other ways to depict forking and non-forking worlds at t. The only consideration of import is whether the worlds share a final point of coincidence at t or a first point of noncoincidence at t. The spacing, connectivity, etc. merely relate and contrast these concepts to the intuition that the future is a garden of forking paths and are not features of our argument.

  16. For a discussion of the notion of ‘accessibility’ at issue, see, e.g., Widerker (2011). As Widerker uses the term, if a possibility is “accessible to an agent” then the agent is able to make those possibilities actual.

  17. Note that we are not simply claiming that it is impossible for the agent to both decide to A and decide to B (stipulated to be distinct events) at the same time. We thank an anonymous reviewer for pushing us to clarify this point.

  18. Perhaps some libertarians may argue that the possibility of indeterminism-involving alternative possibilities in non-forking worlds cannot be problematic because their view entails that such possibilities are required for incompatibilist free will. In reply, a statement by Mele (about another related posited requirement for incompatibilist free will) is applicable: “I have heard it said that what I am presenting as a problem for typical libertarians cannot possibly be a problem for them because their view entails that cross-world differences of the sort at issue are required for directly free action. But, of course, sometimes a philosopher’s view entails something impossible. The question how or why directly free action is possible. . . is a fair question. And the answer that it has to be possible because its possibility is required by typical libertarian views is a remarkably poor answer” (2014, pp. 547–548).

  19. Recall that speaking in terms of a decision that occurs at t is compatible with accounts that understand decisions as events that occupy an interval of time (see n. 9).

  20. Many action theorists take decisions to be mental actions of intention formation (see, e.g., Kaufman 1966, p. 34; Frankfurt 1988, p. 174; Mele 2003, p. 197). On one widely used understanding of intentions, “to have the intending attitude toward a plan is to be settled (but not necessarily irrevocably) on executing it” (Mele 2009, p. 6). Kaufman (1966) describes decisions in a similar manner: “For the whole point of making a decision is to pass from a state of uncertainty about what one will try to do to a state of certainty. This is involved in the very concept of ‘deciding’” (p. 26).

  21. Hence, we are able to measure, for instance, speed in relation to time (e.g., miles per hour, feet per second).

  22. Here one should understand a ‘point of change’ as a point in the interval, or subset of time, over which change is occurring. As is noted above, this interval cannot have a final point.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Al Mele, Randolph Clarke, Torin Alter, and the members of the FSU writing group, among others, for feedback on multiple drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Robyn Repko Waller.

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Waller, R.R., Waller, R.L. Forking Paths and Freedom: A Challenge to Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. Philosophia 43, 1199–1212 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-015-9612-8

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Keywords

  • Free will
  • Incompatibilism
  • Libertarianism
  • Ability to do otherwise
  • Indeterminism