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Compatabilism is one approach to the problem of freewill in a casually closed world. If a person is free to choose among several possible courses of action, doesn't this violate the laws of causality?

The compatibilist response is to state that we have a problem with our definition of freewill: Freewill is not the ability to choose among multiple possible courses of action, it is instead the ability to act freely according to one's own motivations. Once we have refined our definition of freewill, then causal determinism and freewill are compatible, hence the name of this position.

Compatibilists consider an agent to have freewill if such an agent is able to act according to her/his own desires and motivations. But it seems to me that this definition is problematic, because what constitutes a person's own motivations is problematic.

Consider the following scenarios:

  1. A person doesn't move because they're in shackles.
  2. A person doesn't move because they've been injected with a drug that paralyzes them, but they are fully conscious and in control of their thoughts.
  3. A person doesn't move because they've been injected with a drug that has removed their desire to move.
  4. A person doesn't move because they have been hypnotized.
  5. A person doesn't move because at a young age they have been taught that moving in that particular time and place is evil and they will go to hell for doing so.
  6. A person doesn't move because someone has threatened to harm their loved ones if they move.

Clearly the person in (6) is moving because of their own motivation, while the person (1) is not. But the cases in the middle show that the boundary between what constitutes one's own motivations and what doesn't is arbitrary.

There are real world cases were the boundary is fuzzy as well: At what age are children considered to start acting according to their own motivations? Are people in excrutiating pain acting according to their own motivations? Are people under the influence of drugs acting according to their own motivations? What about people with psychiatric conditions? And what about people who are targeted by subliminal marketing and advertising techniques? Followers of a charismatic cult leader? The legal and social definitions seem to me very arbitrary (18 or 21? - above x grams of blood/alcohol - courtroom definitions of competent and incompetent).

It seems to me for a compatibilist definition of freewill to hold, there has to be a clear boundary between acting according to one's own motivation and acting under coercion, otherwise the compatibilist approach fails.

My questions:

  • How do compatibilists address the borderline cases that I described?
  • For a compatibilist, is there a precise boundary between what constitutes an agent's own motivations and what constitutes physical coercion?
  • This is especially a problem for physicalists: Since mind and body are one and the same, there is no difference between manipulating the body and manipulating the mind, and so physical coercion and psychological coercion are no different from each other. How then can we define free agency?
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    It seems most of the complexity of this topic stems from the last assumption made, "It seems to me for a compatibilist definition of freewill to hold, there has to be a clear boundary between acting according to ones' own motivation, otherwise the compatibilist approach fails." I think a lot of the complexities you are exploring become simpler without that assumption. – Cort Ammon Dec 12 '15 at 2:44
  • @CortAmmon Not if you take into account my last question. – Alexander S King Dec 12 '15 at 2:50
  • What connection do you draw between the questions? (I'm presuming the other one is the dangerously named "The Death of Reductionism") – Cort Ammon Dec 12 '15 at 3:05
  • @CortAmmon I meant the last question in the bullet points: "This is especially a problem for physicalists: Since mind and body are one and the same, there is no difference between manipulating the body and manipulating the mind, and so physical coercion and psychological coercion are no different from each other. How then can we define free agency?" – Alexander S King Dec 12 '15 at 3:25
  • There's no difference, or just no clear dividing line for everyone to agree on? – Cort Ammon Dec 12 '15 at 3:37
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First, the problem of free will is like a good infinite puzzle — for every good argument one can find, someone else may come up with a wonderful counter argument — and therefore what I write below is naturally arguable.

The problem of free will is tightly linked with that of moral responsibility, in the context of living in a society. and this link can be used to evaluate cases such as the ones you bring up.

Another point is that it is not so much about what you think and desire or believe that you think and desire (who can tell the difference?) but about what you eventually do in the real world — and that can include thoughts that were expressed by speech.

To see this, imagine that you need to press a button to save the life of someone you deeply hate. it does not really matter what went inside your head, the back and forth considerations, the resolution that you made and the last minute change of mind — what matters is what you eventually did.

back to the problem of moral responsibility — I like to think about it in analogy to spinning tops. that is, to think of a person as a kind of spinning top. you are considered morally responsible for what you do if you are a spinning top that is expected to handle the bumps you are likely to encounter in the society you live in without toppling down.

the spinning top is also a nice analogy since it involves a "mysterious" buffering between the physical environment and its own state or behavior — it really isn't trivial to understand why gyroscopes work the way they do — for example, most videos on the subject in youtube, including by some professors contain errors.

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anyway, if I apply this to your examples, then it seems that in all cases except case #5, the person involved does not have compatibilist free will.

it depends of course on the problem at hand. if it is just about moving one's hand, then someone might say to the shackled person "hey, you do have free will! you can rattle your shackles if you want to, or at least show some interest by trying to fight your shackles".

but we can suppose that in all cases the person involved had to press some button and ask ourselves why they did not press it, and if they are morally responsible for not pressing it.

As for case #5, we can ask our selves how a court would handle such a case.

A court might look into the case and declare, "it was a mistake to assume this person is morally responsible for what he does — we need to lock him up because he is clearly not capable of being a morally responsible agent."

or "despite his history, it was still reasonable to expect this person to behave in such and such ways — we need to punish him because we believe it is reasonable to consider him morally responsible for what he did, despite his history."

or "we will give him a reduced punishment because we realize how his particular history affected his choices."

or "take this kid home, his parents should be held responsible for what happened."

Finally, I do not agree with the link you assume between physicalism and compatibilism. for example I am not a physicalist, and yet I find compatibilism an interesting view.

It is not true that dualists necessarily believe their psychology is non material or non physical. see Chalmers for example — for him one's cognitive processes are all part of the easy problem of consciousness.

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Clearly the person in (6) is not moving because of their own motivation, while the person (1) is not. But the cases in the middle show that the boundary between what constitutes one's own motivations and what doesn't is arbitrary.

A compatibilist would argue that the person is always moving or not moving according to their own motivations in each of your circumstances - but, of course, limited by the constraints of his situation.

Given Scenario #6 - a person not moving even though he will drown, because someone threatens his family - this person must obviously value the lives of his family more than his own life, factoring in his belief that the threat is real. If you put 100 people in this situation, some would move and some would not. Some would resist until the water got to a certain level. A compatibilist would claim that all of them were acting in concert with their true composite motivation at every moment that they acted.

The person in #1 (restrained from moving by shackles) is also acting based on his motivation at the moment, given the real, physical constraints of his situation. This person might have given up all hope, or he may be struggling wildly to break free of the shackles and escape. Whichever one he or she is doing, it is because of a grand combination of both his or her internal and external inputs, filtered through his internal lens of motivation based on all inputs - physical senses, emotions, internal conscious thought, etc.


Edit:

To be clear concerning your 3rd question on whether there is a problem for physicalists, I believe the answer is clearly no. Constraints of any kind can be hard constraints on the actions one can take. Given whatever possible actions remain, the compalibilist would say the action taken is based on current motivation. At the very least I can choose to struggle or not struggle in any situation - even if that is just to maintain consciousness, etc.

Edit 2: To be even more clear, even if I have no physical choices (i.e. my physical movement is 100% constrained), I still have complete freedom of thoughts in my mind, and freedom of effort to attempt to overcome the physical constraints (even if I am completely unsuccessful). Free will involves the will, not the body - I don't necessarily need to have a physical outcome to have different efforts or thoughts.

On the other hand, in this final question you ask how we can otherwise define free will - to that I will answer that I don't believe the compatibilist version of free will is really free will at all. That one always follows one motivations is just a fancy way of dodging the question. You can agree to this as either a dualist or a physicalist or just about any other epistemological viewpoint. Compatibilism is more of a clarification about how the mind and actions are connected than a definition of free will, without even defining the source of the mind or anything else really pressing in the free will debate.

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Some of your scenarios can be handled relatively easily:

A person doesn't move because they're in shackles.

A person doesn't move because they've been injected with a drug that paralyzes them, but they are fully conscious and in control of their thoughts.

In these cases a person is physically unable to move. This raises no particular problem for saying the person acts on his motivations. The means available for him to act on his motivations are restricted.

The next set are not that much more difficult to understand:

A person doesn't move because at a young age they have been taught that moving in that particular time and place is evil and they will go to hell for doing so.

A person doesn't move because someone has threatened to harm their loved ones if they move.

The person has clashing sets of motivations. None of the options presented to him convince him. So he has to pick some irrational means of resolving the conflict such as ignoring criticism. He values one of his motivations and is willing to sacrifice rationality to it. So there is an explanation of his choice in terms of values.

You mention children:

At what age are children considered to start acting according to their own motivations?

Children act on their own motivations from sometime shortly before or after birth. This happens well before the child starts speaking. Language is a complex skill that can be only be acquired by thought and creativity, which is motivated action. People like to pretend children have no motivations for a couple of reasons.

Motivations acted on by ignorant people raise difficult problems and children are extremely ignorant by adult standards. So a child may act in a way that doesn't produce the result he wants out of ignorance. Adults are far too impatient to deal with this rationally and prefer to coerce children. The excuse for doing this is that the child doesn't really act on his motivations. That this is a lie can easily be figured out since the adults act exactly as if they were thwarting a person with motivations they don't like. The adults use guilt, threats of violence, confinement and theft. Such threats wouldn't work unless the child had motivations.

Your next set of examples are similar:

A person doesn't move because they have been hypnotized.

Are people under the influence of drugs acting according to their own motivations?

What about people with psychiatric conditions?

A person will often claim he had no motivation for some action he wants to disown. This is a lie. He has a motivation but wishes it was different, or wishes to con others into thinking it is different. So he claims he was in a state where he could not refuse to take some action as a result of drugs or hypnosis or mental illness. The problem isn't that he lacks motivation but that he wants to obfuscate it and lie about it.

Person A will often claim person B has no motivation if A wants to coerce B through threats of violence, confinement, forced drugging: the sort of stuff psychiatrists do as a matter of course. Person A might sometimes also offer B money or food or accommodation if B acts the way A wants. A might sometimes wants B to be dependent because it feeds A's vanity to have people he can help or ruin on a whim. Bribes and threats work precisely because people do have motivations, so employing them gives the lie to psychiatrists' claims that mental patients have no motivation.

To understand the situation with mental illness properly see books such as "Insanity: the idea and its consequences" and "The meaning of mind" both by Thomas Szasz.

I haven't gone through every situation you listed. You should try to work out the rest yourself.

You write:

Since mind and body are one and the same, there is no difference between manipulating the body and manipulating the mind, and so physical coercion and psychological coercion are no different from each other. How then can we define free agency?

I'm not sure what physicalism means. Thoughts are abstractions. Abstractions can be instantiated in any physical object that can perform particular operations. The set of operations required to instantiate all possible abstractions that can be copied, which includes all thoughts, is extremely limited, e.g. - Friedman and Toffoli gates. So any physical system that instantiates that limited set of operations may act in ways that can be explained in terms of abstractions. See 'The Beginning of Infinity' by David Deutsch, the chapters on abstractions and universality.

You haven't said what counts as physical coercion. Force, theft, fraud deprive people of the ability to do stuff. Threats of such actions are threats to deprive people of the ability to do stuff. So there is a difference between force, theft and fraud and threats thereof and other actions that makes them more problematic and limit a person's choices unless he is willing to suffer those force etc.

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The answer to all of these is that you have to be very nuanced in your definitions of freewill. The difficulties of the 6 problems you mention simply demonstrate that that nuance is important.

A person doesn't move because they're in shackles.

This is the most classic one, so it has the most classic answers. A compatabalist will state that an agent is free to choose from among the options which are physically possible. No compatabalist would claim that free-will involves the ability to break the shackles, grow wings, and fly away (unless you're in a Red Bull add). Likewise, no dualist would ever make a similar claim.

In a shackles case, I would argue that the agent is smaller than "the entire body." The thing with agency would be a part of the mind which can choose to contract muscles or not.

A person doesn't move because they've been injected with a drug that paralyzes them, but they are fully conscious and in control of their thoughts.

A far more brutal version of this is to explore locked-in syndrome. In such cases, one may have to consider the body itself to be shackles, and explore the agency of neurons in the mind to fire or not fire. In either case, its more a matter of reframing the problem. Both compatabalism and other systems with freewill point out that you can't always assume that the freedom is extended to the full extent of a physical body.

A person doesn't move because they've been injected with a drug that has removed their desire to move.

No compatabailist says a person is compelled to move. They are permitted to have desires to do other things. Again, no compatabailist gives freewill the ability to magically sprout wings.

A person doesn't move because they have been hypnotized.

This is the mind control question, and it's a more interesting one. Saving it for the end.

A person doesn't move because at a young age they have been taught that moving in that particular time and place is evil and they will go to hell for doing so.
A person doesn't move because someone has threatened to harm their loved ones if they move.

This person has the free will to do what they will. They obviously are not willing to move, because they have been taught that doing so is bad, and they are choosing freely to not do bad.

Now the mindcontrol/hypnosis/brainwashing thing is interesting. First, I'd point out that the current prevailing opinion is that hypnosis cannot cause you to do anything you did not want to do. What it does to the mind is more nuanced than that. However, if we consider the wider concepts of mindcontrol and brainwashing, those are things a compatabalist would argue are things which affect the mind. They decrease the number of options the mind can choose to do or not do. The case of a complete brainwashing would be viewed as a mind which has exactly one option presented to itself. This can be seen as a degenerate case of freewill. Obviously the choice to choose 1 thing from 1 option is not quite the same as choosing from many options, but I feel the phrase "degenerate case" is a correct application here. Interestingly enough, one of the ways people are rescued from brainwashing is when another individual finally teaches them that there is indeed another option to choose from, by exploring the problems at a finer level of detail.

Now if I were to be arguing these positions as a compatabalist, I would want to know the opinion of the person I am talking to, and I would tailor it to them. If the person I am talking to is a dualist that believes in true freewill, the first question I would ask is "how would you explain this occurrence," and then map my compatabalist answer to that. If I was talking to a physicalist, then they should not mind me redefining "free will" to include the degenerate case as my explanation. I would then go on to try to help them see that there's little to no evidence that this degenerate case ever occurs, arguing that there's always a second option.

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