First Letter to a Young Objectivist

Tuesday night I observed a debate on subjectivism and Objectivism (as in Randianism) in ethics. Ed Hudgins of the Objectivist Center defended the party line. Max Borders of the Institute for Humane Studies argued for a sort of anti-realist subjectivist contractarianism. I found a great deal to disagree with in both arguments. But I think I was a little surprised to find myself almost completely exasperated by Hudgins's fairly orthodox summation of Objectivist ethics. It's been years now that I've felt little affinity to Objectivism. However, that's where I started out in philosophy, that's how I was inducted into the tradition of classical liberal thought, and Objectivism provided my first sense of serious intellectual community. I feel an intellectual debt to people like David Kelley, my friends and teachers from TOC seminars, and folks on the Objectivist mailing lists (the ones that didn't try to kick me off, that is). And I feel a bond with a good number of self-described Objectivists, and I have no desire to have them think of me as, you know, “the other.”
I remember when in the middle nineties how Mike Huemer's set of essays on “Why I am not an Objectivist” had me up in arms. I don't intend to write my own version of Huemer's explanation (which, for what its worth, I still think differs with Objectivism for mostly the wrong reasons.) That said, I do want to set down some of my differences with Objectivism in the hope that it might prove helpful to someone much like me about a decade ago. In fact, I'll address my arguments to Will Wilkinson circa 1996, taking for granted what I know he knew, and aiming for what I know to be his soft intellectual underbelly. If you don't understand what I'm talking about, then it's probably because I'm not talking to you. I'll do one of these every few weeks or so, as the spirit moves me.
So, let's start with free-will.

I consider the argument for libertarian/indeterminstic/incompatibilist free-will to be among the most embarrassing in the Objectivist corpus. Actually, I'll frame the argument as one against determinism, which isn't the same as establishing the truth of libertarian free-will. The argument as I understand it goes like this:
(1) If we have direct, first-person, introspective experience of self-initiated action, then determinism is false.
(2) We do have this kind of experience.
(3) Determinism is false.
It really is as bad as it looks. The first premise is the sort of obnoxious false alternative that Rand was generally good at sniffing out. If we flip the conditional we get: If determinism is true, then we don't have direct, introspective experience of self-initiative action. Why not BOTH determinism and experience exactly as we know it? Why not think a deterministic world can produce any first-person experience you can think of, even the experience of deliberation, choice, and intentional control?
If pressed to defend (check) the first premise, Objectivists like to say something to the effect that free-will is axiomatic. Why? Because the experience of agency (or “volition” if you like) is direct and self-evident, and implicit in every act, including the denial of free will. But, of course, that argument addresses only the antecedent. I want to know why I should accept the whole conditional. What is supposed to be the connection between the antecedent and the consequent? The question is: Why think introspection provides any evidence whatsoever about the nature of causation, as opposed to evidence for the existence of an instance of causation, or conveys any information at all about the relative merits of determinism or indeterminism?
Given the wealth of evidence from the cognitive and brain sciences, there is ample reason to doubt that introspection is in general a reliable means of correctly identifying the goings on in one's own brain, or even of correctly identifying the mental state one is actually in at the moment of introspection. So it's really rather fantastic that the introspective experience of intentionally focusing or paying attention to something (the Objectivist's favorite example of volition) is, at the same time, a direct experience of indeterministic causation. But that seems to be the Objectivist claim.
I'm willing to buy the unpopular claim that one may directly experience causation. If I'm pushing a book across a table, I think I am indeed directly experiencing my effort as a cause of my hand's and the book's movement. But I am not therefore also experiencing the fact that my effort was not caused by antecedent events — the fact that I am an unmoved mover. There is nothing in my experience that tells me whether the event initiated by my intentional application of effort was or was not itself initiated by some other event outside of my control. If my experience of volition was caused by something external to my experience, then, obviously, I didn't experience my volition as having an external cause. But, obviously, that doesn't mean there wasn't one. If I don't experience the cat under my bed, that doesn't mean it's not there.
The Objectivist may often be heard to argue that one cannot deny free-will without assuming it. But this begs the question. My argument is that our experience of our own agency is what it is, and that one of the things it is not is a source of information about the general nature of cause and effect. Unless the Objectivist can adduce some independent and compelling reasons to believe (and not simply assert again and again) that the experience of our own agency carries information about the fundamental, metaphysical nature of causation, we have exactly zero reason to believe premise (1) and thus to reject determinism. On the basis of our experience of volition, we are licensed to the conclusion that we can make things happen and that we have a certain kind of contol over ourselves. We are not licensed to any beliefs about the ultimate character of causation. I cannot open my mouth and with my measured breath intentionally deny that I can make things happen and have a kind of control over myself without assuming what I have denied. I can, however, consistently deny indeterminism because no information about indeterminism is made available to me in my experience of my denial.
Anyway, denying indeterminism has nothing to do with denying free will. I don't know whether determinism or indeterminism is true. Although I'd be interested to find out, I doubt that it matters to anyone not a physicist or metaphysician. The metaphysical question simply has nothing to do with the questions of whether I can make choices, intentionally control my own actions, or be responsible for the effects of which my actions are a cause. I can make choices, be in control, and be responsible. This is, I believe, darn near to self-evident. And that's all having free will amounts to.
The world is either deterministic or it isn't, and very little hangs in the balance. The ultimate nature of causation impinges on questions of choice, control, and responsibility in about the same way it impinges on the outcome of the exciting Joe Gibbs comeback. Go 'Skins!
[Addendum: By the way, Huemer's “Why I am not an Objectivist” essay on free-will is very good. If I remember correctly the conversation I had with Mike a few years back, he's not so comfortable with my kind of compatibilism. I'm willing to interpret “could have done otherwise” in the sort of way he mentions at the end of his essay. Mike, however, is impressed with van Inwagen's consequence argument, while I am not.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

4 thoughts

  1. Did you ever get any explanation about the “I would have thought Curb Your Enthusiasm is over your libertarian head” comment?

    1. Perhaps Free Will will improve the libertarian image…
      One intellectual (and hundreds of viewers) at a time.

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