Thursday, February 23, 2012

The intuition of responsibility

A central theme in the free will debate is the question whether responsibility exists. The idea is that a free will cannot exist, if responsibility does not exist. Therefore it has to be proved that responsibility exists. This is often done with the help of so-called Frankfurt-style cases: a kind of exemplary argumentations first presented by the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. A typical case is this:
“Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a mechanism in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should Black detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black is prepared to activate his mechanism to ensure that Jones instead votes Democratic. As a matter of fact, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes.” (adapted from Eric Funkhouser, “Frankfurt Cases and Overdetermination”,, p. 3)
In this case, Jones has in fact only one option: to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. If Jones had wanted to vote Republican, Black would have forced him to vote Democratic. Then it would not have been Jones’s responsibility that he had voted for the Democratic candidate. However, it was Jones’s own choice to vote Democratic; Black did not intervene and so the vote was Jones’s own responsibility. This shows then, so the reasoning is, that responsibility exists in the sense that there are situations in which it is possible. At least that’s what the intuitive argument of Frankfurt and other free will advocates maintains. Now I do not want to doubt that free will exists, but does it follow from this case that responsibility exists? My intuition says no.
Much has already been said about these Frankfurt type cases, so it would suffice for me to refer to the literature. However, as a “good philosopher” I, too, want to give my contribution to the discussion, so take this case: Under international pressure a dictator organizes free elections according to the accepted democratic rules: everybody can stand up, the candidates have free entrance to the media, they can present their programs freely, and so on. The elections are as free as elections can be. However, when the counting of votes starts, the president gives the following instruction to the counters: in case I get the majority and become re-elected, it’s okay, but if one of the other candidates will win, manipulate the votes then that way that I’ll be the winner. And just like Black in the first case succeeded to implant a mechanism in Jones’s brain unbeknownst to Jones, the dictator succeeds to have the instructions applied and to be kept secret. In case the dictator was beaten by another candidate but was re-elected by his manipulation, then we, the onlookers for whom nothing can be kept secret, would call the regime still a dictatorship. However, as it happened, the dictator was re-elected with 90 percent of the votes. Would we conclude now that democracy exists just as some concluded in the Jones-Black case that responsibility exists? Must we call the re-election of the dictator with an overwhelming majority a case of democracy? I don’t think so. My intuition says that it is a cunning way of manipulation by a dictator, just like so many dictators in this world try to govern with a varnish of democracy. And what makes this case fundamentally different from the Jones-Black case for responsibility? If we want to show that responsibility exists, we’ll have to choose for another, if possible less intuitive, explanation. At least, that’s the way I see it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Free will as a structuring cause of our actions

The definitions and examples of causation in my last blog were an arbitrary selection just for showing that one has to define what cause means in order to be able to answer the question whether there is a free will. Although the selection was not systematic, I think that it makes sense to have a closer look at the chosen instances.
Hempel defined cause as the relevant set of circumstances and events of the phenomenon to be explained. This definition is generally used in the natural sciences. In our case of the free will, we have an action (the phenomenon to be explained), which has to be an effect of one or more natural laws (according to Hempel’s theory) and a relevant set of circumstances and events. The place of the free will will be then among the latter. However, also the free will is a phenomenon to be explained. In a Hempelian approach we have to show then that the free will (= a supposedly free decision) follows from one or more general laws and a set of relevant circumstances and events. In this approach the free will debate must evolve around the question whether there are such laws and if so what the relevant circumstances are that lead to the allegedly free decision. Without further argumentation, I guess it’s not the right approach.
Let me take now the three concrete cases in my last blog. I presented them in order to show that the answer to the question “what causes what?” is often a matter of perspective and, as in the cases presented, often also a matter of social rules. In one case a dog caused an accident because it suddenly crossed the street. However, in the other case it is not the woman crossing the street who caused the accident but the motorist. The difference is in the rule that says that motorists need not to give priority to street crossing dogs but has to do so to people crossing the street on pedestrian crossings. The last instance (the ship that runs onto a rock) is even more complicated since it presents a mixture of social rules (a ship has to follow the prescribed safe channel) and natural facts (unexpected obstacles) and both together (sea maps are supposed to be correct). The upshot to be drawn from these cases is that it is not only important to employ an appropriate definition of “cause”, but also to say what “free will” actually means. Moreover, it is possible that a free will exists from one viewpoint and doesn’t from another one. Or maybe it is so that the free will is not a one-dimensional phenomenon.
How about the idea that a cause is the phenomenon that tipped the balance to produce a certain effect? This type of cause is the same as what Dretske called the triggering cause. In fact, it needs a structuring cause as a background in order to be effective. I think that this combination of triggering cause and structuring cause – so Dretske’s approach – is the best option for explaining what it means to say that we have a free will and for explaining how it works (probably in combination with the idea that the free will is a multidimensional or multifacetal phenomenon). This is so because the combination of triggering and structuring cause fits best the way the human body works. In this blog I can substantiate my point only with an example. I am skating on a lake and the ice is good. It allows me to make perfect gliding strikes: to the left, to the right, and so on. Is it my free will that I make perfect strikes? Yes and no. I have learned how to skate and I know how to make perfect gliding strikes and I can show them to you. But when I am skating there, I look at the landscape, enjoy the skating and give no attention to my strikes. It’s an automatism. But, as said, it’s a learned automatism. It was my free will to learn ice-skating well and to learn to make perfect gliding strikes. Then one can say that by learning to skate I structured my body that way that I can make perfect strikes, on purpose and automatically. It is my free will to skate there on the lake and to make there perfect gliding strikes, if possible. My free will functions sometimes as a structuring cause of my skating perfectly and sometimes as a triggering cause of it, and sometimes it’s a mixture of both. This is just an example, but I guess that if we want to solve the free will problem, we must not only look for a free will that somehow tips the balance of what we do, but we have to realize also that the free will can be and often is something that intentionally structured our body that way that at the right moment the body acts automatically and unconsciously as if we didn’t have such a will.

Monday, February 06, 2012

What makes the free will happen?

Thanks to the recent progress in neuroscience, the question whether man has a free will has become one of the most important philosophical topics. Also here in my blogs, I have talked about it. As so often, philosophers do not agree about the answer nor do they agree about what “free will” means. However, I think that the definition by the Belgian philosopher Jan Verplaetse gives a good description of what it is about, at least for this blog: “The free will is the capacity to decide freely what we do and why and how. With a free will you choose which action you do” (Verplaetse, Zonder vrije wil, 2011, p. 30; italics omitted). What is implicit in this definition – and in other definitions as well – is that the free will can make you something to happen: you can cause something. No wonder then that words like cause, causation and causality are central in the free will discussion. But what do we mean by cause? There is hardly any philosopher in this discussion who will tell you.
Here I do not want to say how we can best define “cause” in relation to the question of the free will. At the moment I have no idea which definition is to be preferred. But not defining “cause” is problematical, for different definitions may lead to different philosophical answers of the free will question. In this blog I want to show only what it means that “cause” can be defined in different ways. I simply give a few definitions and illustrations. I hope that it will be clear then to the reader what my point is.

– According to Carl Hempel, a scientific explanation consists of a set of universal laws of nature, a set of statements that describe a more or less complex relevant set of circumstances and events and a phenomenon that need to be explained. If the explanation is true, we can call the relevant set of circumstances and events the cause of the phenomenon to be explained, so Hempel. Note that the cause need not to be a single event or phenomenon but that it can be quite complex. (Hempel, Aspects of explanation…, 1965, pp. 348-9)
– Roy Bhaskar defines “cause”, following Scriven, as “that factor which, in the circumstances that actually prevailed … ‘tipped the balance of events as to produce the known outcome’ ”. Why did the tower fall down? Because of the gale (but actually it was already about to collapse). (Bhaskar, The possibility of naturalism, 1989, p. 83)
– Fred Dretske distinguishes between structuring causes and triggering causes. For instance, take a thermostat. When the temperature drops the thermostat turns the furnace on. Then we call the drop of temperature the triggering cause of turning the furnace on. The whole mechanism of the thermostat that is constructed that way that it can turn the furnace on is the structuring cause. (Dretske, Explaining Behavior, 1988).
– A dog crosses suddenly a street because it sees another dog at the other side. In order not to hit the dog, a motorist has to brake hard, goes into a skid and collides with another car. Then we say that the dog caused the accident (and the owner of the dog is responsible for the accident, because he did not hold the dog on the lead).
– A woman crosses a road on a pedestrian crossing. A motorist sees her too late and in order not to hit the woman, he has to brake hard, goes into a skid and collides with another car. Then we say that the motorist caused the accident (and he will be held responsible for it, too).
– A captain of a ship gives order to hug the shore for the pleasure of the passengers, outside the normal and safe course along the coast. The ship runs onto a rock and sinks. What was the cause of the accident? The captain? The steersman? The inaccurate sea map? The rock? … ?

These definitions and cases have been arbitrarily chosen. They are just illustrations of the problem. Nothing more than that. The instances make clear that we cannot simply say that there is or isn’t a free will that (sometimes) causes or makes what we do without saying what this causing or making means.