Really? Seriously? This is your argument against free will and moral responsibility?

Okay.  I read this article about free will in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago and it infuriated me.

Then–it was just linked to again on Andrew Sullivan as he linked to this post by Jonah Lehrer over at Wired Magazine online.

Okay–the gist of these posts seems to revolve around this key paragraph in the New York Times article:

On the steps of the store, someone is shaking an Oxfam tin. You stop, and it seems quite clear to you — it surely is quite clear to you — that it is entirely up to you what you do next. You are — it seems — truly, radically, ultimately free to choose what to do, in such a way that you will be ultimately morally responsible for whatever you do choose. Fact: you can put the money in the tin, or you can go in and buy the cake. You’re not only completely, radically free to choose in this situation. You’re not free not to choose (that’s how it feels). You’re “condemned to freedom,” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase. You’re fully and explicitly conscious of what the options are and you can’t escape that consciousness. You can’t somehow slip out of it.

Okay–so this seems to be an obvious free will type of situation.  You have a choice in front of you–and you are also responsible for your choice.

Seems obvious to me, but it then gets exceptionally weird in ways that make me wonder if philosophers actually are capable of eating breakfast and tying their shoes.

The philosopher in the NYTimes then goes on to provide the argument that Free will and the responsibility that comes with it don’t actually exist.  He lays the argument out as follows:

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

The key move is (3). Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

This is the argument.

Seriously. It is the argument they make for why you cannot have free will and moral responsibility for your actions.


Okay–now let’s talk about this argument a bit and demolish it in a couple of different ways.

A) One could point out that at point d) in their argument, they totally make an assumption that is tautalogical and not a given.  Namely, they assume that given your initial state of existence which is largely determined by prior genetic traits and by historical experience–that all of your future choices are COMPLETELY determined by this initial condition.  But that’s not necessarily true.  The possibility of randomness can enter into the picture here–perhaps you are presented with 5 different options from this past genetic inheritance and experience–and there are equal probabilities for each.  Then, the choice that is made is not pre-determined but is a result of you picking one.  Thus, you are responsible for picking that particular option (out of the many) and the future options that cascade from it are also your responsibility–at least partially.  The only way in which the situation d) from above works is if there is only ever one option–but to assume that there is only one option given is to make the whole exercise tautological.  I assume there is only ever one path available to tread–and thus, you can only tread one path! Thus, no free will! haha!

B) Similarly–but a bit more theoretically–it seems like the general argument they are making is that because there are constraints on one’s actions that come from past experience or the structure of the universe and that one does not have absolute freedom of action and responsibility, that one does not have any freedom of action and responsibility.

I’m sorry. That’s really fucking stupid. To show how stupid it is, let’s make their argument a bit more concrete to elaborate how their argument goes.

Let’s say that I really would like to be able to just fly around at will–sort of like Neo or Superman.  I want to have absolute freedom of motion.  However, those dastardly constraints of genetics and past history have made it so that I cannot fly at will.  Damn gravity and lack of wings and heavy bones and the like.  So, following the structure of argumentation that we have seen above–because I do not have absolute freedom of motion–due to genetic history and past experiences and the like–I don’t have any freedom of motion.  Thus, because I cannot fly, I cannot actually move according to them.

Seems pretty clear, right?  This is how reality works, correct?


Really, it strikes me that this argument put forth in the NYTimes article is pretty much exactly like Zeno’s Achilles and Tortoise paradox… and it is just as silly.

C) Building off the Zeno’s paradox link–it strikes me that I’ve seen this kind of thinking before–specifically in my studies of the intersection of the philosophy of science and the history of science as well as in the different ways in which mathematicians/physicists versus engineers approach certain kinds of quantitative problems in reality.

Specifically, it seems to be the fact that certain groups (philosophers/mathematicians) tend to privilege their theories over the facts on the ground.  This result seems to stem from the fact that they are more interested in achieving and valuing theoretical elegance over mundane things like whether something is actually useful/practical/realistic.  A concrete example that jumps to mind came in my readings about the Kuhnian revolution and how certain philosophers of science–specifically Imre Lakatos–dealt with the subject matter.  While studying this debate, I got to read a number of essays and transcriptions at a conference about Kuhn, whereby Lakatos proposed a very particular interpretation (his own) about how science developed that was in opposition to certain parts of Kuhn.  However, a historian of science pointed out that his theory–and the concrete historical details of the scientific development he used to demonstrate this theory–wasn’t actually corroborated at all by the historical record.  The historical actors and events he said had to happen, hadn’t.  The people did not behave or act as his philosophy said they would have.  The pattern he claimed would exist, didn’t.

To all of this, Lakatos then responded that “these historical facts are then wrong, because they my theory makes a lot more sense of how things would go…”

(Can you see why this might be unpersuasive to anyone who wasn’t enraptured with his philosophy???)

Similarly–and this connects back to an earlier post of mine about Engineering and Uncertainty–Most engineers work in the real world–rather than the abstract world–and the kinds of products that they produce–whether knowledge, practices or artifacts–always already exist and are structured by enormous numbers of constraints imposed by both the laws of physical reality and by past cultural history.  Nevertheless, engineers do have significant room for playing around in their design activities and it is almost never the case that there is only one possible solution for a problem or that it is clear which solution is the best for a particular problem.  Although people like to talk about our built world as if a kind of technological determinism exists and that it was foreordained that the products we now have were all pre-programmed into all technological development, such a view does not conform to reality.

Huge amounts of literature in the History of Technology–a lot of which I’ve read considering I got my Ph.D in the field–show just how wrong ideas of technological determinism is–both on the theoretical level–but also more importantly in the historical record.  Really, technology doesn’t develop along any pre-ordained path–there is choice involved in it and the real action is in fighting to get particular technologies developed at the expense of alternatives.  Of course, in all of this history, there are constraints that restrict certain options for development or which make certain options more or less likely–but as I argue above–just because all options are not equally possible, it does not follow that options do not exist overall.

In any case–please pardon my long rant on this subject–this article is one of the many reasons that I find a lot of philosophical writing on free will to be entirely missing the point.  It works from bizarre premises and assumptions that don’t hold up to even cursory comparisons to reality.  I also cannot believe that this is what is being passed off as “modern philosophical thought” in the New York Times of all places.

Seriously. WTF?


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4 Responses to Really? Seriously? This is your argument against free will and moral responsibility?

  1. Scott Gerard Prinster says:

    Just because I’m not utterly self-created doesn’t mean that I can’t take responsibility for my decisions and my actions — that’s what it means to be an ethical individual in our culture. Duh.

    Keep ’em honest, Joshua!

    • tricstmr says:


      It seems like an obvious thing. I mean, by their kind of logic–because I did not create the whole material world that led to the plant matter that was turned into specific cultural products–it is impossible for me to make or be responsible for making a PB&Jelly sandwhich.

      That’s just ridiculous..

  2. That article was a lovely demonstration of why absolute determinism is broken. I just loved how, after that long slog through logical masturbation, the last paragraph basically said: “Ignore everything above and just go on with your life. These are not the clones we are looking for.”

    Really, does it matter if it can be theoretically proven that we have no moral responsibility and no free will if our world, societies, and individual interactions function as if this conclusion is false?

    There were a few little points in the article that caught my eye that you didn’t stab viciously with a stick that I think should get some sharp-and-pointy treatment:

    1) “Does it stop you feeling entirely morally responsible? I very much doubt it. Should it stop us? Well, it might not be a good thing if it did.”

    A good thing? Why? This assertion is entirely unsupported. What does the author think will happen if we all suddenly stop feeling morally responsible? Utopia is a bit optimistic to me. Besides, this makes the assumption that we make our decisions (all of them) based on our sense of moral responsibility. I don’t know about you but for me “moral responsibility” is a small part of my decision making and potential consequences is a big fucking sledgehammer.

    2) “But the logic seems irresistible”


    Internally consistent =/= irresistible.

    (Okay, you proved this one but I had to point and laugh again.)

    3) What is with the idea implied in the second paragraph that absolute freedom to chose and accept the consequences (and having no freedom to refuse) is a bad thing? Seriously. I like having ownership. I know that some people are terrified of the idea of ownership but I’m not entirely understanding of why. If someone could explain that to me I’d appreciate it.

    • tricstmr says:

      I know… I didn’t go after the entire article because it infuriated me so much that I didn’t want to spend days on end stabbing it to death…

      In any case–as to your points.

      1. Agreed. 100%. I am always just flabberghasted at how blithely so many philosophers (WHO SHOULD REALLY KNOW BETTER, I MEAN, WTF, WEREN’T THEY “TRAINED” IN HOW TO MAKE ARGUMENTS..) make all of these claims and just treat them as givens without any evidence to back them up… and then when they start talking as if this made-up world in their head actually has something to tell us about reality–it makes my inner historian want to come out and flay them alive.

      2. Yes. Time to sharpen the knives some more.

      3. So far as I can tell–some people don’t actually want freedom–and that they like being told what to do.
      I think I’ve actually met some of these people–and I don’t grok them either. I tend just to see it as willful denial of reality, which still doesn’t make sense to me, but maybe that’s just a faulty assumption of mine…

      In any case–this article really did infuriate me… The NYTimes article in this “The Stone” section by a Jesuit philosopher today–it also has a bunch of just glaringly bad claims in it (if you read it–note the bit about how Dawkins and atheists are actually somehow supposedly “worse off” than the faithful when all is said and done–because, I had to infer, the faithful still have their “faith” whereas Dawkins cannot disprove God and therefore is just unhappy and frustrated or something…)–and I’ve read a few other columns and they all were–to a T–HORRIBLE.

      Anyway… enough thinking for tonight…:)

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