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In the Basic Argument that attempts to prove that one cannot be held truly and ultimately responsible for the actions they may make, an infinite regress at the end of the argument is employed. I have a little trouble understanding it.

The infinite regress goes as follows

You must have intentionally brought it about that you had the nature N, in which case you must have existed already with a prior nature in the light of which you intentionally brought it about that you had the nature N in light of which you intentionally brought it about that you are the way you are now.....

However, I am unable to comprehend what it essentially is saying. Is it that for me to have nature N, I should have had a nature M, in light of which I will discover that nature N is better than nature M, and thus I should accept N. But for me to do so, I should have had a nature P, in light of which I should have chosen the nature M and thus it goes on...

If such is true, I don't understand how it is not possible to terminate the regress by adding a premise that we all are born with a nature A. From which on, we can delve in self-exploration and reflection and arrive at the nature we want. (This is not a claim that this will necessitate that the agent becomes truly and ultimately morally responsible but just a question as to why the infinite regress is necessary.)

Edit:

If the above argument is rejected by the claim that the nature A was caused, then is it not possible to utilize the premise that we are not born with any nature and all the understanding we get is simply learning how the world operates, consequently putting an end to the regress.

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I think the trick is that terminates the regress withs something that is not free.

The regress works on either:

  1. Either you are intentional now or you are not.
  2. If you are intentional now, then this is because you had a prior nature that was either brought about intentionally or not.

if at any point, you pick "not intentional" down the regress, then you've lost the chain of intentionality and now somewhere down the line there's an unfree action. Strawson makes this point on page 7 in the article. If you inherit the sort of nature that pursues becoming better, this is not a free act.

The OP suggests as a further edit:

If the above argument is rejected by the claim that the nature A was caused, then is it not possible to utilize the premise that we are not born with any nature and all the understanding we get is simply learning how the world operates, consequently putting an end to the regress.

This is an interesting claim on several fronts, but I don't think it does much to damage Strawson's argument. First, it seems to be patently false of the sort of beings we are. If we are born human, then we have on a biological and neurological (and mental or spiritual) level, a certain nature and dispositions and proclivities. So it seems if this argument is true, it doesn't apply to us (which is the primary sort of being whose free will we are concerned with).

Second, if it were true, then it would merely prove that such an entity would be free. But if such a being were so amorphous as to lack any nature, then it seems inextricably difficult for that being to by chance decide to start developing autonomous capacities. Here, we can fix this -- by losing -- if we assert that it begins with intentionality, because this would mean it has an intentional nature.


This is a variation of sorts of the causal argument for God's existence (offered by inter alia Aristotle and Aquinas):

  1. Everything must either be its own cause or caused by something.
  2. Everything caused is (normally) caused by something else. (definition of cause)
  3. To end the chain and avoid a bad infinite regress, there must be something causa sui.
  4. Therefore, something causi sui (i.e. God) must exist.

But Strawson also states that he rejects causa sui in the chain of intentionality. By doing so he makes it so that you cannot begin from a place where you are making an intentional choice ex nihilo.

Maybe the sticking point is the way freedom is used in the argument. Strawson is talking about libertarian freedom of the will -- not to be confused with the political movement. Here, the idea is that the will decides things largely unencumbered by the habits, past, and upbringing of the person who has it.

Strawson's claim is actually not novel and is a key part of many rejections of free will. What he brings is a good deal of clarity to where the problem lies.

This argument matters because that people choose their actions freely is crucial to many theories of morality and theories of criminal justice and punishment.

  • Can you respond to the edit? – mathnoob123 Jul 20 '18 at 1:33
  • updated with response. – virmaior Jul 20 '18 at 1:40

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