Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

11. Free Will and 'Could Have Done Otherwise'

Book cover: Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

In this section of my talk, I want to say something briefly about how we could have acted otherwise even when, in principle, all of our actions can be predicted with certainty. If God or Laplace's demon [Pierre-Simon Laplace was a groundbreaking mathematician during the Enlightenment] or a supercomputer had a complete understanding of a previous state of the universe and the physical laws that govern it, it would have been able to predict with absolute certainty that I was going to say 'absolute certainty' just now. How could I have done other than say what I just said? Moral philosophers have a deep interest in this question as most take it as axiomatic that if it is the case that I ought to do have done something else, then it must be the case that I could have done that other thing. Our answer also impacts how we hold other people morally responsible for their actions.

Now, the hard determinists and libertarians, the incompatibilists, say that in a deterministic universe, we could not have done other than we did. Compatibilists like me say that we could have.

The philosophical arguments on both sides of the debate get very complicated. You can read the technical details of my solution in Section 7 of my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism. Here, I want to give you the layperson's answer. Let me ask you a question.

How many of you have a kitchen knife at home that is able to cut bread? This is not a trick question.

My next question is: What is that knife doing now, right this minute?

While it's sitting in your drawer at home doing nothing, does it have the ability to cut bread? [You answered Yes to my first question, so the answer must be Yes.]

So, the conclusion here is that even though your knife is not cutting bread right now, it could have cut bread. [Analysis: To say X is able to do Y is to say that X can do Y in a variety of circumstances.]

Think about it. God or Laplace's demon or a supercomputer would have predicted that your knife was not cutting bread right this minute. BUT, it still had the ability to cut bread even when it was not cutting bread. It could have cut bread even when, in fact, it was laying idle in your drawer.

Book cover: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby

Well, if a knife acting in accordance with deterministic laws is still able to cut bread when it is not, in fact, cutting bread, then why aren't deterministic human beings able to do other than they in fact do? That's the $64,000 question for hard determinists and libertarians.

Now, what gives knives, motor cars, electric fans and human beings the power, the capacity, the ability, the capability to do things other than they in fact do? The short answer is that this ability derives from the intrinsic properties/the characteristics of the entity. In the case of your knife, these characteristics are its physical profile, like the hardness and sharpness of its blade. Likewise, in the case of human beings, these characteristics include a person's psychological profile. Now knives, motor cars, electric fans and human beings maintain their capabilities even when external circumstances change. Your knife continues to be able to cut bread, in virtue of its intrinsic properties, even when it is not actually cutting bread. Likewise, I maintained the ability to say something other than 'absolute certainty' before, even though that is what I, in fact, said. That's all I want to say on our ability to do other than we did. If you would like to follow this up, please read Section 7 of my essay and drop me an email.

Copyright © 2018

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