Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Consequence Argument

(This is a repeat post. Originally posted on April 19, 2010, it was inadvertently deleted from the archive.)

In my previous post on free will, I mentioned the "Consequence Argument": 

The Consequence Argument 

  1. No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature. 
  2. No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true). 
  3. Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future. 
  4. If determinism is true, it appears that no person has any power to alter how her own future will unfold, and therefore no moral responsibility for it. 
I proposed that the argument is unsound because Premise #2 is false: because of quantum mechanics, determinism is false.

This line of argument might leave one with an unpleasant feeling that the root of the matter has somehow been bypassed. Let's suppose that the future is not completely determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature: rather, the future is determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature and some sequence of random quantum events. How does this help?

 In fact, it doesn't seem to help at all. The future is just as determined, from our point of view. We have no more control over the outcome of random quantum events than we have over deterministic physical processes.

So it seems that the whole issue of determinism might have been a mere distraction. The real root of the matter lies deeper.

To get at that root, let's try to break down the consequence argument. We start with the idea that my actions are the result of my mental state. My mental state is the result of the processes of my brain, and my brain is a biological organ. My brain consists of neurons that function according to the laws of biochemistry, and those laws are ultimately reducible to physical processes between elementary particles like neutrons, protons, and electrons.

 This is just straightforward reductionism. I assume that there is no magic going on at any stage of the process: there is no immaterial spirit or soul that intervenes at some level to change the laws of nature.

When we apply the reductionism microscope, we end up with a feeling that can be summed up as "It's all just electrons." If everything I say and do is determined by what those electrons do, there doesn't seem to be any room for me and my decisions.

There is a feeling, then, that the future is fixed by the past and the laws of nature, regardless of whether the laws of nature are deterministic or indeterministic. Certainly there is nothing I can do do affect the paths of those electrons, regardless of whether they obey quantum mechanical laws or some other sort of laws. And barring, of course, any sort of magical soul force that can divert the electrons from their physically established paths.

So things are looking bleak for free will, on any naturalistic account. However, it may be that the uncomfortable feeling that "the future is fixed" is not, in fact, anything we should be worried about. Under any account of the world, we can imagine the past, present, and future laid out before us as a four-dimensional image: a God-like perspective (as Daniel Dennett suggests in Elbow Room , p. 101-102). On any account, there is only one future. (Here I am leaving aside many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics.) So from this perspective, the future is fixed, and nothing can change it. But surely this is not what we worry about when we question whether we have free will! No matter how much free will we have or don't have, there is still only one future in store for us.

There is actually a fallacy hidden in the idea that "the future is fixed," one that is sorted out in a wonderful article by Norman Swartz. This is the fallacy of "logical fatalism": that because something does occur, it must occur. Swartz writes,

Logical fatalism confuses the semantic (truth-making) order. It makes it appear that the truth of a proposition 'causes' an event to occur. It is, rather, that the event's occurring tomorrow 'makes' (but does not cause) the proposition to be true today. 

So the idea that the future is fixed shouldn't cause any discomfort.

Next time: some very uninteresting questions about free will.

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