I'm as Free as a Bird Now

Over at Liberty and Power, Sheldon Richman complains about Ron Bailey's compatibilism:

Free will does not mean actions are uncaused. It means they are caused by persons. The popular notion that persons can be reduced to mechanistic neurological processes is self-refuting—if true, its advocates are uttering not words but meaningless sounds. The “causes” of actions, Thomas Szasz reminds us, are called reasons. But those cannot be reduced to brain activity, however much they may depend on it.

I don't want to get into get questions of reductionism. I just want to get into Richman's unmotivated question-begging assumption:

  • If determinism is true, then words do not have meanings (are just “meaningless sounds”).
    There is simply no reason whatsoever to accept this proposition unless one has already accepted that determinism (or the thesis of mechanistic causation) is false.
    We have just about as much reason to believe this:
  • If determinism is false, then words do not have meanings.
    But what do we know to be true? Words mean things. Yes, they do! I'm meaning things right now, if you know what I'm saying. And you do! So, words, not just sounds (or pixels, or whatever.) Great.
    And this is even relevant to questions of causation HOW?
    What don't we know? Whether or not determinism is true.
    But we know that it is possible to meaningfully communicate. So, if determinism is true, we know that determinism is compatible with meaningful communication. If indetermism is true, then we know that indeterminism is compatible with meaningful communication. We cannot, however, know a priori that either is incompatible with meaningful communication.
    Richman is right. Persons cause actions. But he is wrong to assert that persons are not some deterministically governed physical fact about the world under a different description. Because he just doesn't know that. And he is wrong to think that it matters. Questions about personhood, agency and responsibility have nothing much to do with questions about reductionism or the ultimate nature of causation.
    We know that our words mean things, and we know that under the right conditions we cause our own behavior and are responsible for what we do. However, though we cause our own behavior when a gun is to our head, we are not fully responsible for it. And if a drug is messing with the neurological conditions necessary for normal deliberation and choice, then responsibility is mitigated, whether or not behavior is fully reducible to neurological events. Similarly, if certain kinds of brain disorders undercut the neurological underpinnings of normal deliberation and choice, then responsibility may be mitigated.
    The question of whether I am responsible when coerced does not turn on deeper metaphysical questions. And neither does the question of whether I am responsible if I have a brain lesion that short-circuits that conditions for normal agency.
    I agree with Richman that free-will is self-evident. I deny that the self-evidence or experience of excercising free-will carries with it any information about the truth of reductionism or determinism, or that it tells us very much about the conditions for ascribing responsibility.
  • Author: Will Wilkinson

    Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

    11 thoughts

    1. People are not leaving California for any xenophobic or rascist reasons. It is just tha the cost of housing is astronomical and California has a 9.3% personal income tax. My wife and I were paying over $1000/month in income taxes and living in a two bedroom apartment in the bay area that cost $1800/month. We now live in a very nice home in Texas that costs us $1432/month and have no income tax. Leaving California is an economic no brainer.

    2. The whole point of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the right wing blogosphere, etc. seems to be to lower the trust and cooperativeness of their target audience.
      For example, the clowns who turned on every power switch they could find in response to Earth Hour.

      1. Limbaugh et. al. wanted you to trust Bush more and wants you to trust Obama less. DailyKos and The Nation want you to trust Obama more and wanted you to trust Bush less. Putting these things together makes me trust all concerned less.

      2. Listening to the same radio programs (Limbaugh) and reading the same columnists (Coulter, Malkin) increases the trust and cooperativeness of conservatives. Turning on every power switch is a great example of altruistic cooperation. It’s more costly than turning them off so that makes it even more cooperative than Earth Hour.
        Just look at all the mainstream conservative websites, blogs and radio shows. They are all in almost perfect lockstep with each other. If that’s not cohesion, I don’t know what is.

        1. I’m sorry, I’ve got to say something here. I see just as much locksteppery among the mainstream left equivalents of what you mention – MSNBC, Kos, Huff Po, etc. How can you watch Olbermann shrieking on and Jon Stewart kvetching about a cable finance network as though it’s the Whore of Babylon, and not see that these are the doppelgangers of the right wing echo chamber?
          And by the way, if Earth Hour was supposed to be so important and such a symbol of collective sacrifice for the common good, then why was it at night on a Saturday, when most people would be using little power at home anyway? Why not call for oh, say … 10:00AM on a Wednesday? Probably because that would in fact be a sacrifice, and those who called for “Earth Hour” would be forced to reconcile their infantile pastoral fantasies with the actual implications of mass, diminished productivity. Even if one hour of lost work might not cripple the globe economically (or maybe it would, I don’t know), it’s telling that the green coalition shied from this at the get-go, realizing that the majority of human-kind would rather work and be prosperous than sit in idle contemplation of what their well-being is potentially destroying.

    3. Will the quality of the government of widest scope tend to average out unequal levels of cooperativeness, such that high-cooperativeness communities will tend to get worse governance than they could provide alone (maybe even worse than they could do without a state) and low cooperativeness communities will tend to get better governance than they could provide alone? It seems that the answer has to be “yes,” but what does this imply?
      So…let’s have more federalism?
      It implies that bureaucracy, for all its inefficiency, is highly efficient at one thing – allowing the sample to seek it’s mean. It’s the overwhelming mathematical rationale for a larger nation-state. If preventing social disorder is more important that optimizing social order (or “cooperativeness,” in your post), the larger state makes even more logical sense.
      I guess this is where your distinctions lie. The liberaltarian project is one of optimization, not of minimization. In some cases these two principles are synonomous, but not in the case of governance and cooperativeness.

    4. But if you’ve got the super-cooperative, high trust conditions for a thriving voluntary civil society, you’ve also got the conditions for a really effective government in which corruption will be minimal and power will tend not to be abused.
      This doesn’t seem obvious at all to me.
      Why won’t government attract the outliers who covet power and are prone to corruption, while those outside government are likely to give them too much benefit of doubt, and cheer as their power grows?
      I just don’t see what the cooperativeness of the community has to do with limiting government growth beyond what’s useful. I think that has more to do with other things, like general understanding of the dangers, and vigilence at limiting government institutionally.

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