Libertarian free will is incoherent, and that’s good for responsibility

For a while, I’d considered myself done debating free will, having expressed everything about it I had to say.  However, with this Crash Course video, and in light of the discussion on physicality we had earlier this summer, I realized I do have some additional thoughts on it.

Just a quick reminder: I’m a compatibilist.  I’m convinced that the mind is a system that fully exists in this universe and operates according to the laws of physics.  However, I think responsibility remains a coherent and pragmatically useful social concept.

Even if the laws of physics are fully deterministic, the knowledge that we may be held responsible is one of the many causal influences on our choices.   Holding people accountable for their decisions is productive for society.  In that sense, I’m a compatibilist, regarding free will as the ability of a competent person to act on their own desires, even if those desires ultimately have external causes.

For me, free will is something that exists at a sociological, psychological, and legal level.  Like democracy, the color white, or the rules of baseball, you’ll look in vain for it in physics.  At the physics layer, nothing exists except space, elementary particles, and their interactions, and even they may be patterns of even smaller phenomena.  Insisting that anything that we can’t find at this layer doesn’t exist strikes me as unproductive; to be consistent with it requires dismissing the things I listed above, along with most of every day reality.

Anyway, this post isn’t about compatibilism, but old fashioned libertarian free will, that is, the type of free will that many people do think exists, the one that says that even if the laws of physics are mostly or fully deterministic, there is something about the human mind that makes its actions not fully determined by those physics.  It’s an assertion that each human mind is essentially its own uncaused cause.  But is this a coherent concept?

It seems to me that there are two broad approaches to libertarianism.  One is substance dualism, the idea that there are two types of substances in reality: the physical, and the mental.  With substance dualism, free will is possible because the actions of the mind are affected by its non-physical mental components.  Therefore our decisions can’t be fully accounted for by physical causes.  We must bring in mental causation to complete that accounting.

Another approach is to posit (per the Penrose / Hameroff crowd) that quantum indeterminacy is a significant factor in mental processing.  In many ways, this seems like a modern version of the Epicurean swerve proposition, that there is something inherently random about mental processing.  This makes it impossible for us to predict decisions with physics, although in this case it should be possible, in principle, to account for them.  (Whether quantum randomness is real depends on the interpretation of quantum mechanics you prefer.)

The problem I see with both of these approaches, is that even if the mind is not part of the normal physical causal framework, it must operate according to some kind of principles.  These principles might be forever beyond our understanding, but minds have to operate in some manner.  That means, in the case of substance dualism, we haven’t so much avoided or escaped the causal framework as expanded it.  Everything is still determined, it’s just that the causal framework now includes mental substance.

You might argue that perhaps mental dynamics aren’t deterministic, that they have an inherent unpredictability, which would make it similar to the case of quantum consciousness.  In both of these scenarios, it means we’ve added a randomizing element to the causal framework.

But in all cases, the question we have to ask is, what is added to make an action praiseworthy or blameworthy if it wasn’t before?  If physics fully determined our choices before and that made our choices free of responsibility, how does adding mental causation add responsibility back?  Or how does adding randomness do it?

It seems like there is an appeal to ignorance here, to the unknowable.  Somehow, if we can’t predict a person’s actions, then they can be held accountable for them.  Of course, for all practical purposes, we can’t predict a person’s actions even if they are fully determined by physics, which seems to nullify any advantage from the unknowable aspects of the other scenarios.  Chaos theory dynamics might make prediction of physical minds actions just as unreachable as quantum mechanics or ghostly dualism.

Chaos theory is all about the fact that no measurement is infinitely accurate.  There is always a margin of error.  In a complex dynamic system, the margins of error quickly snowball, making the system unpredictable, even in principle.  This is why weather may never be 100% predictable: too many factors that can’t be measure with absolute precision.  And  unless synapses strength turns out to exist in discrete steps (a possibility), then brains may be an excellent candidate for a complex dynamic system.

In other words, introducing non-physical phenomena or new physics doesn’t evade the central issue: does it make sense to hold people accountable for their decisions or not?  It seems like the issue basically remains the same.

If the mind is strictly physical, people do talk about someday altering a convicted criminal’s brain so that they wouldn’t have immoral impulses, or at least would have the will to resist those impulses.  This is usually presented as a more humane approach than traditional punishment, and it might well turn out to be so.  The problem is that we’re still a long way from being able to do that, and even when it is possible, something tells me that people will regard having their mind, their core self, forcibly altered, to be just as nightmarish as many other punishments.

Personally, my own feeling on this is that the mind’s operations are substantially, if not fully, deterministic.  It’s possible that quantum indeterminacy has some role in the brain’s processing, but if so, it seems like it would be an extremely nuanced one.  The brain evolved for animals to make movement decisions, presumably to maximize access to food and reproduction while minimizing exposure to predators.  A rampantly indeterminate brain doesn’t seem like it would be very adaptive.  (One reader did point out to me how a slight indeterminism might be adaptive, although it seemed to me that the unpredictable causal factors in the environment would accomplish much the same thing.)

Myself, I certainly hope that the mind is mostly deterministic.  I know the kind of decisions I want to make, and the idea of some random element affecting those decisions is not one that I’d personally find comforting.  I want learning, practice, and deliberation, and the other things I’ve done to become the person I am, to causally determine my decisions.  It seems like randomness would actually undermine responsibility, rather than justify it.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

By the way, Crash Course followed up the above video with one on compatibilism.  Here it is:

32 thoughts on “Libertarian free will is incoherent, and that’s good for responsibility

    1. Definitely. I didn’t spend any time on the environment in this post, but it’s definitely part of the causal framework. But what part do you think considering it might have changed about libertarian free will?


      1. Well I’m not sure I get “libertarian” free will…so take this with a grain of salt. I was trying to go over to your POV to expand it, though I didn’t make that clear.

        I’m thinking that this whole need to explain things in terms of randomness comes from discussions on religious determinism (as in, say, Luther.) In the religious framework, the environment is also determined. Then we have the problem of how we can be held accountable for our actions if God has already made everything and us the way we are. In this case we start thinking about a swerve or randomizing factor, otherwise free will is inexplicable.

        If I’m understanding this right, if we leave God’s omnipotence out of the equation, we haven’t made things so deterministic that we need a mental swerve—we have a “randomizing factor” in our relationship to the environment and to others. But this randomizing factor isn’t as random as a swerve and it’s explainable in theory in retrospect. Here we’re leaving behind the brain in the vat uncaused cause, and introducing a kind of relationship. Which may be enough to say we’re responsible for our actions to some degree, enough to justify a justice system (which takes into account external factors, drug-induced states, mental fitness, etc.)

        And all of this I admit might not be relevant to your point. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hmmm. You seemed to have jumped straight to the historical heart of the matter. Although I wouldn’t think adding or subtracting God’s omnipotence to or from the discussion necessarily changes the outcome. (Although if he exists, it certainly may raise the stakes.) It seems like it just changes the terminology.

          If God made a fully deterministic universe, as well as heaven and hell, then our salvation or damnation was set before we were born. And since God was the one who set up everything, including our innate nature and life experiences, then our damnation would ultimately be his responsibility.

          If he added a randomizer to the mind, then whether or not we are saved or damned is unpredictable, but I can’t see where that leaves room for us to deserve our fate any more or less than we would have if things were already determined, or that it necessarily absolves God from his responsibility, except possibly by obfuscation.

          Of course, blaming God for these things doesn’t seem like a good idea if we want to stay on his good side. Positing that he gave us a choice (free will) seems to let us out of the dilemma, at least until we examine what this type of free will is actually supposed to be.

          I have to admit that I don’t know enough about the swerve to say whether it or quantum indeterminacy is more random. I guess I saw them as two sides of the same coin for purposes of this discussion. (It is uncanny that the ancient philosophers came up with something as part of their atomism that just happens to resemble an aspect of quantum mechanics.)

          I would agree with your point that we do have enough of a certain type of freedom for justice systems to be coherent and useful. The future may change the remedies, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get away from someone judging people accused of bad behavior.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “And since God was the one who set up everything, including our innate nature and life experiences, then our damnation would ultimately be his responsibility.”

            Which is essentially what Luther said, if I’m remembering correctly. Basically, you can’t do anything to get saved. You either have “grace” or you don’t. But since you don’t know what God has in store for you, you just get on as best you can.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. “But since you don’t know what God has in store for you, you just get on as best you can.”

      I think that’s the main rub for the whole subject of free will, whether speaking theologically or just philosophically. If our decisions are set, that changes nothing when we’re faced with an actual decision. We can’t simply sit back and wait for the set decision to happen. We have no choice but to weigh our options and make the best decision we can. If we decide poorly, knowing that it is inevitable seems scant comfort in the face of the consequences.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree. Pragmatically speaking, it makes no difference whether fate or free will wins the day. We still have to make decisions. And when it’s so abundantly clear that we have this powerful experience of free will, and that it’s not going away, it starts to get tedious when people argue otherwise. Of course we also have the experience of loss of freedom (internal freedom, for lack of a better term, to make our own decisions), but that only happens because we have the feeling of freedom in healthy states to begin with.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You know, the argument that free will is an illusion is, in many ways, similar to the argument that consciousness is an illusion. You would think people’s positions on these questions might correlate, either in the direction of eliminative reductionism or not, but interestingly, they don’t necessarily.

          Many hard determinists, like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, take consciousness seriously, while Dan Dennett, who sometimes calls consciousness an illusion (although his actual views seem more nuanced) is a free will compatibilist. I think Alex Rosenberg is one of the few people prepared to say that neither exists. (Rosenberg also thinks that history and the social sciences are just entertainment. He’s owned up to the “mad dog reductionist” label.)

          Liked by 1 person

  1. You could make the argument that our minds are moving in the direction you want. In the childhood of our species we made decisions but they were few and far between and were of a simpler order. As societies were created every more complex, the nature of everything (decisions, explanations, etc.) also grew more complex and our ability to make such decisions grew as our brains remapped themselves to do that (albeit in a limited fashion).

    As always, the race is whether we will improve in our decision making faster than in our ability to destroy the environment we depend upon to live. Before the scope of that situation was small and if we effed up the local ecology (like the pre-historic coastal Indians in California) we moved down or up the coast far enough to get a fresh start. Currently, such a move would have to be to another planet as no part of this one is not suffering degradation from out activities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem with other planets is that there isn’t one we know of that’s more habitable even than a damaged Earth. I suspect that here is where biological humanity will have to make its stand. If we do ever move on, it will likely only be after we’ve developed the ability to change ourselves for other environments.


  2. I think I used to believe in libertarian free will (although I didn’t know to call it that), but since I’ve been reading your blog I’ve become more of a compatibilist. Of course other things I’ve read or watched, like Crash Course, have contributed to my changing views, but you really were the first to challenge my assumptions about free will. For that, I am thankful.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If we start to qualify freedom in any way, say, by linking it with motivation or responsibility, then isn’t the term rendered something of a misnomer? Isn’t the concept of freedom (being ‘free to’, and ‘free from’), in this philosophical context, only really meaningful if it connotes an unconditioned state, in other words a state not ever accessible to (or existent as) the human animal?

    In the sense you use it, Mike, which is that of being relational to responsibility, then it seems (tell me if I’m wrong) you’re saying that freedom is solely that of there being no external veto, that total autonomy obtains for a closed mind/body system. But even if that were possible (let’s run with it anyway) is that enough to then talk about a motivated state as being a ‘free’ (un)condition?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hariod, I have to admit that I can’t see how we can use words like “freedom” or “free” without qualifying them. For example, I’m free to continue typing this comment or to instead go get a cup of coffee, in the sense that no one is going to stop me from doing either one. However, I’m not free to have made a different decision about this than I did with my innate nature and life experiences up to that point. (Even if quantum or some other type of randomness comes into it, it still doesn’t give me that freedom, only chains me to the randomness.)

      With that in mind, I’m not quite sure what you mean by an unconditioned state. Are we talking about unconditioned from coercion, disease, mind altering drugs, physics, or causality in general? I believe I’m currently free from coercion, disease, or drugs (well, except for caffeine), but not free of physics or causality. Of course, my current decisions may be conditioned in some ways by what I had for lunch today.

      Free will does seem inextricably tangled up with responsibility to me. It seems like the main reason it’s an interesting subject is because of what it means for responsibility. I think understanding what kind of freedom we do have, and what kind we don’t, allows us to understand what kind of responsibility is warranted (detention and restorative) and what kind isn’t (retributive).


      1. I agree, freedom is surely always qualified in some way – whether used in the positive or negative sense i.e. ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. It seems a misnomer in this discussion because it can never apply, either within the context of will/volition, or in the sense of us being a closed system, which we never are. So yes, I agree with everything in your opening paragraph, and which seems entirely in accord with my own opening paragraph above. As I suggested (perhaps awkwardly), freedom as an absolute state is not ever accessible to (or existent as) the human animal.

        By an ‘unconditioned state’ then I mean just what is implied, but which is never actualisable, as freedom. A conditional freedom must be a fairly useless concept – a philosophical sliding floor – other than when used as a figure of speech: “the prisoner is now free”. So, as I ventured to suggest, freedom is logically only truly that when no conditioning circumstances obtain. And that never happens; so-called freedom is always qualified and conditional. It therefore seems both a misnomer and utterly pointless to talk about the existence of Free Will as if it were an absolute and not a relative state.

        That said, then I’m also in agreement on the need for the concept of Free Will as applied to the sphere of what we call ‘personal responsibility’ – another relative state – and without which society falls apart. No matter what we learn about the brain, with its absence of any inner agent, and so too an absence of any Free Will, still we must all live by rules as if each individual were an autonomous agent exercising Free Will, even though it’s a fallacy.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think we’re on the same page, although I’d ask you to consider whether a fallacy that is necessary and pragmatically useful really is a fallacy. This goes back to my point about not trying to find free will in physics. It isn’t there.

          But neither is the color white. Yet saying that the color white is fallacious or an illusion, while true in physics, belies the fact that we have to give a label to the color that our visual neural circuitry uses to represent a mix of every visible wavelength of light.


          1. I take your point, once again, Mike, though if we say “this sheet of paper is white”, it is indeed a fallacy, albeit a pragmatically useful one – how can it not be a fallacy given we know the paper has no whiteness of itself? For it not to be a fallacy the statement must be “this sheet of paper appears white”, which is quite a different statement, and not a faulty one, as is the former.

            The paper being white, and the supposed possession of Free Will, are both hasty generalisations, or faulty syllogisms, it seems to me. That said, and as agreed before, outside of formal reasoning these things are useful in terms of societal order and effective communication.

            So, I think the only distance in our positions is that in your asserting (with your Compatibilism) that you have something you term Free Will, that is at odds with my more rigid definition of it as a philosophically altogether useless concept. Perhaps I need Tina’s input here to put me straight?

            Liked by 1 person

    2. “So, I think the only distance in our positions is that in your asserting (with your Compatibilism) that you have something you term Free Will, that is at odds with my more rigid definition of it as a philosophically altogether useless concept. ”

      I think you’re right. I would agree that it is useless in physics, and perhaps in any of the hard sciences. It doesn’t start to become a factor until it becomes emergent several conceptual layers up. Whether it is useful philosophically, I think, depends on your philosophy. I have a strong streak of pragmatism, so I do find it useful, at least as long as we remember what layers it applies to.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Spot on. Changing the determinants does not change the relation. What we are looking for from free will is an account of inter-subjective determination. Are the determinants mostly ‘mine’ or not? We already think that way when we assign moral responsibility.
    Who would say that the altered prisoner in your example had gained a moral faculty rather than a behavioral modification?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! On the altered prisoner, I would think it would depend on just how deep the modifications took place. I could see modifications being made that changed their actual desires, not just their behavior. Of course, there’s no fact of the matter when it comes to morality, so when they’ve gained a moral faculty as opposed to just had their behavior modified would be a matter of perspective, a philosophical issue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. different perspective on the same question: Where do the internal determinants begin and end, i.e. where is the boundary of the responsible self? Such an extensive modification amounts to a sophisticated lobotomy.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Good question. It’s tempting to say whatever is inside the head is internal determinants and outside is external, but we routinely recognize that a brain tumor doesn’t count as part of the responsible self.

          My answer is that I think the responsible self is the portions of the self where it is productive to hold them responsible. It’s productive to hold a criminal with a bad childhood responsible for his actions because lots of people have bad childhoods but override any bad impulses from it to avoid the consequences. But holding someone with a brain tumor responsible is not likely to be productive since it’s not likely to affect the actions of others with brain tumors. Obviously this is a matter of judgment though.

          Every time anyone brings up modifying criminals, a picture of lobotomized patients pops in my head since what’s being discussed is the same thing those lobotomies were supposed to be, essentially mental surgery.


  5. Hi Mike,

    Regardless of the philosophical underpinnings, I would agree it makes sense for society to hold one another accountable for our actions. Your writing here caused me to wonder about the extent to which causality of one “level” of material organization can be construed as primary in complex systems.

    For example, let’s agree the functioning of the human mind is not possible without the reliable behavior of its quantum level components. But can we argue conclusively the whole is not “merely” the sum of the parts? For if complexity gives rise to degrees of freedom that simply do not exist in the underlying “levels” of the system, then is it fair to suggest that there may indeed be an independence at work in a system as complex as the human brain? And that, at the level of a complex organism, there is room for suggesting that, whether it is a fiction or not in the ultimate physical sense, there is an emergent phenomenon of choice that is quite active at the level of the system, and which at that level accountability makes some sense?

    It just seems to me that the act of reducing systems to their components is quite a powerful approach that has taught us a lot, but I’m not sure it is inherently valid–as we have been taught to think it is– that higher level system phenomena are secondary. One cannot, for instance, explain in any meaningful way the operation of an electric motor, without considering the geometry of its construction, which exists in some way not quite reducible to particles.

    Please note I’m not making an appeal to the universe being designed here– I’m simply asking about the validity of the idea that what is “smaller” and more “underlying” is truly more fundamental. Because if there is a certain equality to system functions at various levels, then it seems quite reasonable to hold people accountable. Just because the ability to choose depends upon the operations of systems that behave in deterministic ways– does that wholly negate the derived freedom of choice?

    I suppose someone far smarter than I am has proven mathematically that causality proceeds exclusively from the ground up, but I am not sure on that point. I am thinking a little, but remembering only with great haze, the ideas of semiotic biology.

    Anyway, another interesting and though-provoking article Mike, which I enjoyed.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michael,
      As always, I very much appreciate your interesting comments.

      I think you’re talking about emergence. There are two types of emergence: weak and strong. Weak emergence is the understanding that complex systems have properties that cannot, in practice, be reduced to their constituent parts. Temperature is an often cited example of this. At the molecular level, there is no temperature. It comes into existence by the collective kinetic energy of all the particles.

      Then there’s strong emergence. Strong emergence asserts that some systems are not reducible into their constituent parts, even in principle. I totally buy weak emergence and even consider it self evident. To buy strong emergence, I would have to see some evidence.

      The thing is, chaos theory dynamics, in many cases, makes the differences between these two types of emergence effectively moot. We’ll likely never be able to perfectly predict the weather and therefore never be able to prove that the weather is only composed of the sum of its parts. It’s possible the same thing might be true for brains. Although in both cases, we might be able to reach a level of prediction that is pragmatically reliable.

      On causality, there are a lot of people who insist that the universe is fully deterministic. I can understand why they take that position, but I think it depends on your interpretation of quantum mechanics. Myself, I have substantial doubts that everything is deterministic, although I suspect most of it is. Quantum indeterminacy impinges on the macroscopic world. If it didn’t, we never would have discovered it. Assuming it only happens in labs strikes me as unrealistic.

      So I think you’re quite smart to be doubtful that it’s all one giant deterministic mechanism.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the reply, Mike. Yes, I was thinking about the validity of emergence, and I can appreciate the difficulty of accepting strong emergence. But it is not clear to me it couldn’t exist. Memory for instance seems as though it would be viable only in systems with extended duration and sufficient complexity. While we could agree that the practical operation of memory depends upon the stability and reliability of tiny atoms and particles, there is really nothing whatsoever at such a level to suggest the possibility of memory is there? I mean, it is one thing to say from our human vantage point that memory must be possible through the inter combination of tiny atoms and particles, but thinking about memory from the wave equation makes almost no sense to me. Would you say memory was a strong or weak type of emergence?

        I wonder if you have read any of Prigogine’s work on thermodynamics? One thing really interesting I remember from one of his books was that quantum theory was essentially deterministic. I hope I’m not mistaking this. But he basically suggested that quantum experiments do not allow for “prolonged interaction” of quantum elements, and that when there is only one interaction the system is deterministic. But when, as in certain types of systems, there are prolonged interactions then the system can explore new states and undergo those mode shifts we see, into higher states of order. It was only through prolonged interaction that I remember him suggesting this occurred. I could be wrong, but I thought he was also asserting this to be the case for Newtonian mechanics as well.

        I think maybe systems with prolonged interaction have extremely heightened sensitivity to small inputs– perhaps this is similar to chaos theory– and thus they display properties not able to be predicted from the ground up.

        Anyway, it seems to make sense to me either way that accountability has some value to our collective organization.


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Michael.

          “there is really nothing whatsoever at such a level to suggest the possibility of memory is there?”
          Not sure how well versed you are in neuroscience, but, while there’s still a great deal more to learn, it’s been pretty well established that biological memory is encoded in synapses, the connections between neurons. In some ways, this is similar to how computer memory is encoded in transistor voltage states inside of computer chips. There’s no memory in a single synapse, but in the combination of thousands or millions of synapses, a human memory association comes into existence. There are hundreds of trillions of synapses in the brain.

          I do definitely agree that thinking of memory in terms of quantum wave functions (if that’s what you meant) isn’t productive. As Sean Carroll pointed once pointed out, we can’t even predict the periodic table with quantum theory. Attempting to predict the operations of cellular machinery with it seems like madness.

          Can’t say I’m familiar with Prigogine’s work. From what I understand, quantum physics are not deterministic in terms of one particle (at least not in any currently observable sense), but in large numbers, they obey probability distributions. As we scale up, the behavior of large populations of such particles becomes increasingly more deterministic, until we reach levels where the determinism of classical mechanics becomes a useful paradigm.

          We’re in agreement on responsibility. Thanks Michael!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Something that I’ve been considering…even if there is an actual element of indeterminacy to our actions, it doesn’t seem like that would vindicate libertarian free will. If what I do is somewhat random, then to that extent, making the right choice would seem to be a matter of luck. It may not be causally determined by external factors or even internal factors (desires, fears, etc.), but I don’t see how it would really have anything to do with free agency. If what I do is not determined by my desires, how am I acting freely?


    1. That’s pretty much my view too. Randomness, whatever the source, doesn’t add meaningful freedom. If anything, it undermines responsibility. I want the learning, training, and thoughtful reasoning to have causal effects on my decisions. Having some random factor mixed in with that wouldn’t be comforting.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.