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Compatabilism is one approach to the problem of freewill in a casually closed world: How to reconcile freewill with a casually determined world (in particular one that follows the laws of physics)?

Incompatibilists hold that freewill cannot exist in a causally determined world: either we have freewill and the world is not causally deterministic, or conversely the world is causally deterministic and we do not have freewill.

Compatibilists hold that freewill and causal determinism are compatible (hence the name). They do this by redefining the concept freewill. As long as a person is free from external coercion, they are acting according to their own freewill. Another way to state the compatibilist position is to say that people have freewill as long as they are free to act according to their own motivations.

It seems to me that for the compatibilist approach to freewill to be workable - especially within the context of moral responsibility - they need to address the issue of insanity. In both social and legal contexts people who are deemed insane are considered to be not responsible for their actions. But from the compatibilist point of view they are free agents since they are not constrained by any outside forces in their behavior.

The social and legal perception of insanity seems to imply that an insane person isn't free to act according to their motivations because they have internal constraints (their psychiatric condition) on their actions as opposed to external ones.

Setting aside psychiatric definitions of insanity, I feel that compatibilists need to address this at a more fundamental level for their position to be consistent.

  • Where does the boundary lie between actions that are free and actions that are constrained by mental health issues?
  • How do we separate the legitimate motivations of a free agent from the delusional or mistaken motivations of an insane person?
  • Is there an inner level of consciousness where the agent's true motivations lie?
  • How do compatibists address insanity?
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    Insanity is one of the two "biggies" that philosophy tends to have trouble with. The other: sex. – Jeff Y Feb 10 '16 at 20:10
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    I'd like to point out that while the legal concepts of responsibility, insanity, etc. seem to imply something about free will, but there's no reason why they must. We may simply choose as a society to make the legal system work in a certain way because we prefer it. – Era Feb 10 '16 at 20:59
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    It seems to me that libertarians face the same questions: where is the boundary between self-forming and determined in free acts (if it even makes sense to talk about a boundary), and consequently how should the line of responsibility be drawn. This is THE problem of free will, for any account. informationphilosopher.com/freedom/problem – Conifold Feb 11 '16 at 2:07
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Three considerations,

First, "compatibalist" and "incompatibalist" are generally labels we apply -- based on the properties you describe rather than being themselves the features that cause claims that "freedom" under some definition is either compatible or incompatible with some other feature of the universe. (if memory serves, you can be an incompatibalist about freedom and determinism and a determinist at the same time; alternately, you can be a compatibalist but think that freedom doesn't exist).

Second, I was reading something interesting and relevant to your question earlier this week in Hegel (he's not exactly a libertarian on free will, but his point is quite good). What Hegel notes in the "Ethics" section (after "Abstract Right") of Philosophy of Right is that the insanity defense or claims about acts of passion are insulting to rational nature (page 160 in the more recent translation by Knesbit).

I was thinking about this point, because it's really right on a certain level. Hegel's solution is that except for what he calls "imbeciles, infants, and the insane" he maintains that we should hold people responsible for their actions in Recht and Unrecht rather than imagining people float in and out of rationality. For Hegel, this is in specific contrast to Kant who would say that we are either acting rationally or not depending on whether our maxim has its origin in reason. Interestingly, Hegel punts on the point of defining madness as an empirical question (though in his case that has some legitimacy since for him rationality is shared and its a social judgment whether someone is sane or not).

How then do these two points relate back to your question? I take it that you're right but it's complex. First off, I take it that your question is accepting the premise that a free action is also a rational action. There's two problematic ways to go in relating insanity and action. First off, if you go too far in requiring rationality, then no one has enough rationality to have responsibility. (This is often stated as an objection to Kant) Conversely, if rationality is seen as robustly withstanding all sorts of behaviors and mindsets, then it's not really clear what the term means.

Hegel, being a sort of compatibilist, does not bother defining the term. I would guess this is the most common approach, but the motive behind it is that there's some question as to what "free will" means and what "rational" (vs. insane) means.

I'm less familiar with how self-declared contemporary compatibalists handle it, but one option is to, following, Marcia Baron, be much less concerned with the idea that our actions are motivated by either reason or emotion and to accept that actions are generally motivated by a mixture of things, some animal, some rational...

I don't know if this addresses your question well or not.

  • "Second, I was reading something interesting and relevant to your question earlier this week in Hegel (he's not exactly a libertarian on free will, but his point is quite good)" I didn't get exactly which text of Hegel's you are referring to? – Alexander S King Apr 18 '16 at 17:43
  • Clarified. Philosophy of Right – virmaior Apr 18 '16 at 23:39
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I think the issue you are arriving at is the assumption that freewill must inherently be absolute. If you are incapable of doing a single thing, you are immediately not free. A man in shackles clearly has limited ability to will the movement of his body. A man standing in front of a mountain has limited ability to will the mountain to move aside so that he does not have to climb over it. It's generally accepted that we will die. Limitations to freewill exist all over. The issue of reconciling this is not just on compatibility, its on people who believe in freewill as a whole. Any system which admits freewill must consider these cases.

A second issue is the issue of social structures. The declaration that someone is not responsible for their actions does not automatically make them not responsible, it merely declares it. From many social perspectives, including the perspective of the government, which is a very important one, this declaration is sufficient. However, to presume that our ability to declare someone insane actually causes them to be insane is generally not accepted as how declarations work. A declaration of insanity does not take away their agency, it permits the rest of society to act in a way that presumes they have no agency. The social structures do their best to solve problems, but few assume all social structures are perfect.

I find, when actually approaching the question of freewill, limits (from calculus) are my friend. For example, it permits an agent to have an ability that approaches libertarian freewill, despite existing in a world which has physical limits. This permits the construction of things like p-zombies which are indistinguishable from a person, or even an insane person, which may or may not have freewill. The closer you get to a limit value, the more they appear to have freewill. Is it not reasonable for a compatabalist to define "having freewill" as a limit, just as we define the "velocity" of something to be "the limit of the difference in its position divided by time, as time goes to zero?"

This has a peculiar property of being able to admit truly free agents with libertarian freewill as well. If they exist in the world, where they can do anything, then it is trivial to demonstrate that they are not bound to a physical body (for that would limit their freewill). Thus, one cannot bind such an agent with a mere insanity charge: they have the freewill to replace their place in the insane body with a p-zombie that is indistinguishable from them, and to go elsewhere.

Now in theory such a free agent could instead choose to do a miracle which cannot be explained by determinism. For all I know they can. However, if they want to maintain the validity of a compatabalist perspective, even if they have the freewill, they may still choose to only act in ways which are indistinguishable from a deterministic p-zombie.

There are many other approaches, but I like this one because it permits an intriguing split, if need be. What if the compatability between determinism and freewill is merely limited to all that which is empirically observable. This would permit freewill from multiple perfectly free agents who choose not to exercise their freewill on the deterministic part of existence which is empirically verifiable. I find this particularly intriguing because the vast majority of the argument for causal determiniceny seems to be related to how we observe the empirically observable world to work. Maybe there's an edge there. Or maybe we have unconciously defined "empirical" in a way to exclude all pure libertarian freewill actions which are not causally deterministic. The options are endless.

And of course, there's always the cop out: an agent who has libertarian freewill may have chosen to blind themselves to such capabilities, and thus pronounced a belief that compatabalism must be the only valid theory =)

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It seems to me that for the compatibilist approach to freewill to be workable - especially within the context of moral responsibility - they need to address the issue of insanity. In both social and legal contexts people who are deemed insane are considered to be not responsible for their actions. But from the compatibilist point of view they are free agents since they are not constrained by any outside forces in their behavior.

The social and legal perception of insanity seems to imply that an insane person isn't free to act according to their motivations because they have internal constraints (their psychiatric condition) on their actions as opposed to external ones.

This is a common story about insanity, but it is false. Consider some of the cases in which a person has been involuntarily committed, such as john Hinckley who tried to assassinate Reagan. Was Hinckley incapable of acting on his preferences? No. Hinckley wanted to kill Reagan and tried to do so. The problem is not he lacked agency, but that he used his agency in a way people don't like. The same is true of other people deemed insane. The point of classifying a person insane is to make it possible to do stuff to that person against his will without a trial. People are not classified as insane because they have no reason for their actions, but because nobody wants to understand their reasons. Just to be clear, I am not saying that people deemed insane are all good or just misunderstood or anything like that. Some of them may be very bad. Hinckley attempted to murder somebody, which is a bad thing to do. But the idea that such people lack agency for actions that are clearly deliberate is a disgraceful obfuscation.

As such, the fact that some people are deemed to be insane doesn't pose much of a problem for compatibilism if people properly identify what's going on with such labels. If people are unwilling to clearly discuss such issues, then they will be confused.

See "The meaning of mind: language, morality and neuroscience" and "Insanity: the idea and its consequences" by Thomas Szasz.

  • I was actually thinking about the opposite case: Not people who are punished because they are deemed to lack agency, but people who get away with misdeeds because they claim to lack agency. Check out the infamous "Affluenza" story. Thanks for the Szasz refs, never heard of him before. – Alexander S King Feb 11 '16 at 17:33
  • Szasz covers both people being punished and people escaping punishment as a result of alleged lack of agency. – alanf Feb 11 '16 at 17:47
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Your dichotomy and definition of freewill is, I believe, somewhat oversimplified, even faulty.

In his famous "Two Concepts of Liberty" Isaiah Berlin distinguished helpfully between "freedom from" and "freedom to," though pointing out their complex interactions. While useful, this only sketches the issue at the more or less political level in arguments between political liberals and socialists.

At something closer to the modern psychological level, Kant is perhaps the most influential philosopher of modern, as opposed to classical, freedom. Precisely because we can construct scientific "laws" of natural causality we are to a certain extent "free from" the determination of those laws. We operate under what Kant calls a different, separate "causality," enabling our "freedom to" act towards purposes.

But combining this "freedom from" and "freedom to" is still not enough. Imagine you are absolutely free of all laws and constraints, natural and social, a Faustus 2.0. A succession of earthly purposes no sooner appears in your mind than they are already achieved. Hence, your imagination is virtually indistinguishable from reality. Would we call this "freedom"? Well, we might call it the paradoxical "freedom of a madman," which is nearly the same as the most complete absence of freedom.

As the fairytales warn us (far more prudently than the political scientists), be careful what you wish for! Kant grasped that the true nature of what we mean by freedom is not only "freedom from" heteronomous influences and impulses. Not mere lawlessness or the anarchy of the solipsistic, absolutely skeptical subject. Nor is it simply "freedom to" obtain whatever Faustian delights occur to us. It is autonomia, the power to consciously create, accept, and follow laws of one's own making.

In practice, we don't need to actually do this, but reserve our capacity to critique and accept those laws and duties in conformance with reason and thus among the very preconditions of our freedom. There is no human "freedom" apart from the human capacity for reason. Yet "reason" requires a whole schema of rules. Without both sensibility and intelligibility, "freedom" could gain no real traction in our lives. (This is also part of Kant's moral argument that "freedom" presupposes "duties," which strikes most liberals as paradoxical, leading to all sorts of idiotic crises of liberalism.)

By this definition, which I believe to be far more useful, "insanity" is to suffer from a radical imbalance in the prerequisites of freedom. There is no "traction," a heteronomy of impulses, a collapse of the objective "seeming" and "being" distinction, and, in non-Kantian terms, perhaps a "communication" breakdown, the freedom of gibberish. Anyone who has known people with mental breakdowns, knows it is not true "autonomy" and is a condition of great suffering and practical, heteronomous constraint. Recovering of even one's civil liberties is, again paradoxically, a matter of setting and following one's own rules, precisely as Kant might define it.

I'm not sure you would be satisfied with this answer, but it seems to me if we simply drop the false dichotomy and look at human freedom as a "different causality" within the grounds of "reason" or, if you prefer "discursive capacity," then most of your specific questions and the state of your problem withers away. Concerning the question of how one is to define proper aims that are not delusional...well, that is a larger, social question that I do not believe Capitalism at present is in any position to answer.

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    I didn't come up with the dichotomy and definition, compatibilism and the libertarian free will vs compatibilist free will discussion have been around for some time. The way I've described it I picked up from Dennett's various online lectures. You told me a few weeks back that dualism was my foe. Actually if I have any philosophical "foe", it is compatibilism. – Alexander S King Feb 11 '16 at 17:30
  • I didn't mean "your" dichotomy personally. Nonetheless I find the definition of "freedom" insufficient. By the more Kantian approach I present, there is less difficulty in placing "insanity," even to a certain extent across cultures. I suppose Kant is some type of "compatiblist," even perhaps dualist, but that's not a literature I'm familiar with. I believe there are many gradations, but I don't see why "insanity" poses some special problem for "compatibilism" in general. – Nelson Alexander Feb 11 '16 at 18:20
  • Dualists actually have a way out of compatibilsim if they allow the non-physical part of the mind to act non-causally. I need to research Kant's view a little more. – Alexander S King Feb 11 '16 at 18:24
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    With Kant, I'm afraid, there is never "a little more." But the relation between "freedom" and "reason" makes good common sense, which goes aways towards addressing the "insanity" issue in terms of freewill. I think of "compatibilism" as just a term broadly covering the failures of strict machine physicalism and goopy "ghost-stuff," a dichotomy which really almost nobody ever defended. The ghost just gets renamed "energy" or "emergence" or whatever and then everyone is happy for awhile. – Nelson Alexander Feb 11 '16 at 18:32
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There are first answers derivable from neurobiology. Neurobiology operates according to a compatibilistic paradigm.

Where does the boundary lie between actions that are free and actions that are constrained by mental health issues?

As a first approximation our conscious actions are released by the interaction of the prefrontal cortex on one hand and a combination of basal ganglia and thalamus on the other hand. The prefrontal cortex stores longterm goals and general rational characteristics of the person. Broadly speaking, the prefrontal cortex decides between different alternatives how to execute or to suppress the activities triggered by the basal ganglia and the thalamus. Sometimes we consciously experience the result of this decision.

The origin of some mental diseases can be located in lesions of the prefrontal cortex, which is no longer capable to terminate an obsessive action.

How do we separate the legitimate motivations of a free agent from the delusional or mistaken motivations of an insane person?

How do you discriminate between “legitimate" motivations and “mistaken" motivations?

In any case, goals – not motivations - are created and stored in the prefrontal cortex. They are accessible to conscious experience. Hence goals, which we consider an indicator of a mental disease, can be traced back to disorders of this part of the brain, either by lesions or by traumatic experiences.

Is there an inner level of consciousness where the agent's true motivations lie?

What are “true" motivations, do “false” motivations exist? Do you mean rationalizations?

It is well-known that conscious mental processes are restricted to the neocortex. The thalamus has been named the “gate to consciousness”. But motivations arise much earlier by unconsious processes in the limbic system.

How do compatibilists address insanity?”

See no. 1 for an example.

Of course the explanations of neuroscience are much more refined than I scetch in my answer. In addition, neurobiological investigations of volition are a field of active resesarch with many open questions. Nevertheless, it is a domain where scientific work can be successfully done.

For more information see the textbooks of neurobiology. For the contact with active research see scientific journals like “Nature Neuroscience”, and also http://www.scimagojr.com/journalrank.php?area=2800

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