Some Free Will Reading

Back in May, when I was finishing up my paper on free will (pdf file), due to the press of time and urgency, I only quickly and partially engaged the texts that I was utilizing for my paper. (Which in part accounts for why, even by my own estimations, this is not evidence of my best work.)

In the last week I have set about to rectify that problem. I recently completed Peter van Inwagen’s classic libertarian free will text An Essay on Free Will. And I have just picked up Timothy O’Connor’s Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will, for a much more leisurely read. I’m saving the best to last: Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will, which I hope to get to by the end of the week.

It was my first encounter with van Inwagen’s text, I’m a bit shamed to say. But it was an enjoyable one. I admit to having read rather quickly over his specific modal argumentatioin, but the outline of his argument is quickly summarized. It is contained in the two things he spends the majority of the book proving:

1. Determinism is incompatible with free will.

That is to say, compatibilism is not an option. Determinism and free will are mutually excluding truths, in terms of human volition/action. Either we have free will and it is up to us to freely act in accordance with our deliberations, or determinism is true and all our acts are the necessary consequences of past events and the natural laws that obtain.

Now, he does not pretend to settle the issue as to whether or not free will is irrefutably proven to be true. But he does, it seems to me, to make the excellent case that compatibilism cannot be true.

2. Moral responsibility requires free will.

While there are several accounts, along the lines of Frankfurt-style counterexamples, that argue for a compatibilist account of moral responsibility, the fact of the matter is, there are no real advocates for moral responsibility if determinism is true. But van Inwagen shows that moral responsibility is not predicated upon the outcome of acts (i.e., whether or not one could have done otherwise) but upon the volitional aspect behind human action. Part of that demonstration has to do with the argumentative weaknesses of Frankfurt-style counterexamples, but it also banks heavily on everyday intuitive language and behavior.

I think this summary quite nicely accounts for libertarian free will. By eliminating compatibilism, it really quite nicely lays out the true options. (It also heavily undercuts Reformed Calvinism as a bonus). And by grounding moral responsibility in free will it clarifies what it is one can be morally responsible for.

But of course laying out the libertarian free will case is not the end of the matter. It also matters that one be able to defend indeterminist and incompatibilistic free will against skeptical charges (that indeterminism and free will are just as exclusive of one another as are determinism and free will; i.e., that the agent’s acts are up to chance and not the agent’s control), and to provide some sort of account which will recommend it to the prevailing naturalistic mindset. O’Connor’s and Kane’s books set out to do just that.

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