Re: "Free Will Theorem"

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Tue, 12 Apr 2005 09:45:49 -0700 (PDT)

The question of free will has generated an enormous
amount of philosophical literature. I'd suggest reading
at least the first part of this page on "Compatibilism", Compatibilism is the
doctrine that free will is compatible with determinism. Probably the
most well known advocacy of compatibilism is Daniel Dennett'e 1984 book
Elbow Room. From the page above:

> Compatibilism offers a solution to the free will problem. This
> philosophical problem concerns a disputed incompatibility between free
> will and determinism. Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is
> compatible with determinism. Because free will is taken to be a necessary
> condition of moral responsibility, compatibilism is sometimes expressed
> in terms of a compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism.
> 1. Terminology and One formulation of the Free Will Problem.
> 1.1 Free Will
> It would be misleading to specify a strict definition of free will since
> in the philosophical work devoted to this notion there is probably no
> single concept of it. For the most part, what philosophers working on this
> issue have been hunting for, maybe not exclusively, but centrally, is a
> feature of agency that is necessary for persons to be morally responsible
> for their conduct.[1] Different attempts to articulate the conditions for
> moral responsibility will yield different accounts of the sort of agency
> required to satisfy those conditions. What is needed, then, as a starting
> point, is a gentle, malleable notion that focuses upon special features
> of persons as agents. Hence, as a theory-neutral point of departure, free
> will can be defined as the unique ability of persons to exercise control
> over their conduct in a manner necessary for moral responsibility.[2]
> Clearly, this definition is too lean when taken as an endpoint; the hard
> philosophical work is about how best to develop this special kind of
> control. But however this notion of control is developed, its uniqueness
> consists, at least in part, in being possessed only by persons.
> 1.2 Moral Responsibility
> A person who is a morally responsible agent is not merely a person who
> is able to do moral right or wrong. Beyond this, she is accountable for
> her morally significant conduct. Hence, she is, when fitting, an apt
> target of moral praise or blame, as well as reward or punishment. Free
> will is understood as a necessary condition of moral responsibility
> since it would seem unreasonable to say of a person that she deserves
> blame and punishment for her conduct if it turned out that she was not
> at any point in time in control of it. (Similar things can be said about
> praise and reward.) It is primarily, though not exclusively, because of
> the intimate connection between free will and moral responsibility that
> the free will problem is seen as an important one.[3]
> 1.3 Determinism
> A standard characterization of determinism states that every event
> is causally necessitated by antecedent events.[4] Within this essay,
> we shall define determinism as the metaphysical thesis that the facts
> of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth
> about the future. According to this characterization, if determinism
> is true, then, given the actual past, and holding fixed the laws of
> nature, only one future is possible at any moment in time. Notice that
> an implication of determinism as it applies to a person's conduct is
> that, if determinism is true, there are (causal) conditions for that
> person's actions located in the remote past, prior to her birth, that
> are sufficient for each of her actions.
> 1.4 Compatibilism's Competitors
> The compatibilists' main adversaries are incompatibilists, who deny the
> compatibility of free will and determinism. Some incompatibilists remain
> agnostic as to whether persons have free will. But most take a further
> stand regarding the reality or unreality of free will. Some of these
> incompatibilists, libertarians, hold that at least some persons have free
> will and that, therefore, determinism is false. Other incompatibilists,
> hard determinists, have a less optimistic view, holding that determinism
> is true and that no persons have free will. A minority opinion is held
> by hard incompatibilists, who hold that there is no free will regardless
> of determinism's truth or falsity.

I don't think the essay covers it, but as others have pointed out the
problem with basing free will (as defined above) on quantum indeterminacy
is that it seems as bad as determinism as far as satisfying our instincts
about what deserves blame or praise. We don't praise a machine for
working as designed, nor do we praise the dice for coming up the way
we want in a gambling game. These are not moral agents. This is the
paradox, and the essay on compatibilism might also shed light on how a
purely random nondeterminism can be compatible with free will as well.

Hal Finney
Received on Tue Apr 12 2005 - 13:43:25 PDT

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