Ted Honderich on Free Will and Determinism

Professor Ted Honderich is a determinist. He believes that all of our thoughts, decisions, choices and actions are mere effects in a causal chain. Nothing can happen other than that which does happen. However, as Honderich himself is quick to recognise, it does not follow from this that we necessarily lack freedom. In this respect, the distinction between compatibilist and incompatibilist philosophies is crucial.

Compatibilists define freedom in such a way that it is logically compatible with the existence of determinism. In their view, to be a free-agent is to be free from certain kinds of constraint. The free agent is not subject to another person's will, he is not acting at the point of a gun and he is not subject to some kind of internal compulsion process. To act freely, according to the compatibilists, is to act according to one's desires, character, personality and so on. In Honderich's terms, it is freedom as voluntariness.

However, there is an opposing tradition which sees compatibilism as a "wretched subterfuge…a petty word-juggelry" (Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason). Philosophers in this opposing tradition argue that determinism undermines all that is important in the concept of free will. Particularly, they claim, the idea of personal moral responsibility is redundant once it is accepted that a person's actions are determined before they are born. Of course, not all incompatibilist philosophers accept the truth of determinism. Some are committed instead to a notion of freedom that Honderich terms origination. According to this notion, free-actions are not determined, they remain within the control of the agent and the agent is morally responsible for the actions in a strong sense. I asked Professor Honderich whether he thought that the concept was coherent.

"Many philosophers have said there is the greatest difficulty about arriving at a clear conception of origination," he admitted. "Part of the difficulty is that an originated decision, if there are any, is one that could have been different at the very moment it is made. If I decide to shoot Thatcher, I can at that moment decide to act differently. What this means is that the past could have been exactly as it was up until that moment and I can nonetheless decide differently. That story contains within it a pretty alarming proposition, or it seems to - namely that there is no explanation of the decision I in fact make. You have to look for such a thing in the present and past circumstances. But in both of these places, as we've been hearing, everything could have been the same and I could have decided differently. So in one clear sense, it appears, there is no possibility of any explanation whatever of this decision that was made."

However, Honderich does not believe that origination is a null notion. "After all, I can define it as the giving rise to a decision in such a way that the decision is not determined, and yet is within the control of the agent, and moreover in such a way that he is really responsible for it. I haven't said nothing when I've said that. I haven't said something incoherent. I haven't explained how there can be such decisions, but I have said something that appears to make sense. Indeed, what we have here is an idea or conception in common usage. People sometimes think after someone has behaved very badly, maybe viciously, that the person could at the moment have stopped doing the thing, given things just as they were. So the idea of origination, even if it does contain a mystery, does exist. Sense can be given to it, and it seems to be entrenched in ordinary culture - anyway Western culture as we know it."

Of course, it is one thing to accept that this notion is coherent, it is quite another to maintain that it is true or even plausible. One particular problem is that it is difficult to see how agents can escape the network of causality which seems to exist with respect to all other phenomena in the natural world.

"I have to admit being unable to give a good answer to that," Honderich says, "but that doesn't commit me to thinking there doesn't exist any conception of origination. There can be conceptions that are partly mysterious. There are lots of them. Of course, I don't think there really are things of which the conception of origination is true. What is true is determinism. It seems you agree with that, but we are in a minority. Most people are inclined to think that determinism is false. They talk of free will and have in mind something like the originaition we've been talking about - anyway a kind of image along those lines. Also, there are a lot of more informed characters about who have heard of quantum theory, the physics of this century. They think it refutes determinism.:

The quantum mechanics defence of freewill is popular. It rests on the claim that the alleged indeterminacy that exists at the level of quantum events, somehow lets in the possibility of non-determined choices. But Honderich is not convinced.

"My own resistance to this idea that quantum theory falsifies determinism has got at least two parts.

"First, if there really is indeterminism - uncaused events, events that aren't effects - then they are of course at a micro-level, well below the level, for example, of brain events that go with choices and decisions. More important, they don't translate upwards to the macro-level. That is our experience. We don't see miraculous little events, chance events, like spoons levitating. We ought to have this evidence if the miraculous micro-events come up to the top. So a first resistance to the quantum theory stuff is that if determinism is true, it's irrelevant.

"My second resistance is to there actually being any of the events in question, down at the micro-level. All the popular books about quantum theory, some of them by distinguished physicists, say one thing. It is that you can't carry over old assumptions from classical physics into contemporary and recent physics. One of the things that you can't carry over is a conception of the nature of the things that before quantum theory used to be said to be caused or determined. For example, it is said that if the term "particle" is used in an interpretation of quantum theory, you are not to suppose a particle is a small bit of matter in the Newtonian way. It is very uncertain in the end, and indeed this is admitted by most exponents of quantum theory, what the things are that are said not to be effects. Sometimes they are taken to be probabilities or possibilities or indeed propositions.

"The essential point here is that it looks like the things that we are told are not effects are things that the determinist never said were effects. No sensible determinist has said that numbers - say the numbers 4 and 5 - are effects, or that propositions are effects. These are thought to be abstract objects and no one has supposed that the determinist is committed to saying that these are effects. No one supposes that a determinist is committed to saying that a space-time point - for example, the space-time point at the end of my finger - is an effect, and the determinist doesn't say that it is. Determinism, plainly, is only about events, or a certain class of events. In short, to repeat, it's very possible that the things that are asserted in quantum mechanics not to be effects are in fact not events at all, and are therefore not relevant to determinism."

The importance of Ted Honderich's 1988 A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes is not only that it makes the case for determinism. It is also that it is a serious attempt to move the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists forwards.

''I actually believe I've proved both are false," says Honderich. "Is any philosopher allowed one moment of pomposity? I'll use mine up here. I can't say compatibilism has gone away. I heard a lecture on it the other month at the Royal Institute of Philosophy that sent all persons present sound asleep. But it should have gone away, like incompatibilism.

"What my stuff comes to can be put in terms of life-hopes, certain attitudes to the future. We all have them. These are large hopes about the working out of our lives. They have to do with our future actions and what will flow from those actions. What is most important, however, is that these particular attitudes come in two kinds. You can discover the two kinds in yourself.

"I can feel about the future in a way that makes it bright. The essential point is that I can have an attitude to it as something in which I will get what I want, where I'll be doing what I want. I'll end up with the right person, or with money, or just healthy, or whatever. I won't be alone or in jail or bed-ridden and so on. Things will turn out in accord with my personality and nature. If I'm in this mode of feeling, furthermore, I can feel that determinism can turn out to be true, and it won't matter much. All of us have this kind of hope, or at the very least can get into it.

"On the other hand, almost all of us have or can get into a very different sort of hope. It's to the effect that we're going to be able to rise up over our pasts, rise over our characters, rise over our weaknesses, and defeat the things which have kept us back - anyway to some extent. Our futures aren't written down waiting to be read, fixed already. This is a hope, further, that is wrecked if we think of determinism as true.

"That we have or can have both these attitudes shows that we have both the conception of free actions as just voluntary and the conception of free actions as both voluntary and originated. The first conception, plainly, is in the first sort of hope, and the second conception in the second sort. Both these ideas are within us. If that is true, then both compatibilism and incompatibilism are false. They are both false because they agree in one thing - that each of us has one single conception of a free action. The compatibilists say that it is voluntariness and the incompatibilists that it is voluntariness plus origination. They're both up the spout.

"By the way this isn't just asserting that "free" is ambiguous between the compatibilist and the incompatibilist definitions. We can show that we have two different sorts of attitudes, different in their contained feelings. In fact they are connected to some extent with different behaviour. The two sorts of attitudes encapsulate the two ideas. One is of actions as only voluntary, and one is of actions as both voluntary and originated. The existence of the attitudes makes for something like a proof of a behavioural kind that people have an idea.

"If compatibilism and incompatibilism are both false in this way, the real problem of determinism of course isn't what our single shared idea of freedom is - we've got two. The real problem of detterminism is living with and somehow emerging from the situation where we've got two conceptions of freedom and they enter into important attitudes that we have - our life-hopes and a good deal more."

As a criticism of compatibilism this seems sound. However, is there not a possible defence for an incompatibilist philosopher who is also a determinist? Such a person allows that voluntariness is compatible with determinism, but maintains it has nothing to do with freedom or anyway isn't all of freedom. So the short story is that we're not free and responsible?

"Well,' responds Honderich, "a determinist can say that determinism is compatible with voluntariness, and voluntariness is freedom, and so everything is okay. Or, as you imagine, a determinist can say that origination is needed for freedom, and so since determinism is true, there isn't any freedom. My line is that each of us, if we come to believe determinism, are in something like both of those positions. As for the second one, we are now all inclined to feel that if someone does us a tremendous benefit, in adverse circumstances, they could have done otherwise in a real sense. That is why we're grateful. If we get converted to determinism, we'll have a problem."

But supposing, I wonder, that it is a machine that has acted to benefit us greatly. We don't feel grateful to machines. Determinism, if it's true, turns us into biological machines, doesn't it? What room is there for any kind of gratitude at all there?

"I agree that we don't have certain desires in connection with machines. When they benefit us, we don't have certain desires somehow to do well by them in return, if only by saying thanks. We don't have the counterparts of the retributive desires we may have if a person wounds us. But it seems to me that there is another kind of feeling we can have in connection with a machine that benefits us, a good feeling. There is a relation of that feeling to a larger thing - something we could still have to people if we took determinism to be true."

For Honderich, it seems that the key issue of determinism is how we react to it. He identifies three responses: dismay, intransigence and affirmation. I asked him what these involve.

"Dismay is a response to determinism that may have to do with life-hopes, claims or feelings of knowledge, personal feelings, moral approval and disapproval and so on. Dismay is the response that if determinism is true, these things are wrecked. My life-hopes must collapse, and so on. I can't be confident in what I used to call my knowledge. I can't engage in gratitude or resentment. I can't hold people responsible.

'Intransigence is the response that if determinism is true I can still soldier on - with my life-hopes, personal feelings and so on.

"These two responses, which people demonstrably have, entail that they have the conception of freedom as voluntariness together with origination, which is inconsistent with determinism, and also the conception of freedom as just voluntariness.

"Being inclined to both these responses is no happy thing. You're in a kind of conflict situation for a start.

"What is needed is to make the response of affirmation, which you might think boils down to getting rid of desires that cannot be satisfied if determinism is true and being as fulfilled as possible in the fact that other desires still can still be satisfied. Something better can be said along those lines. Affirmation can be the response that life can be great and fulfilling. As for the giving up on the other desires, the best way to succeed in it is to come to believe in determinism."

This interview by Jeremy Stangroom first appeared in Issue 6 of The Philosophers' Magazine (Spring 1999).

Really Deep Thought

Teachers find it easier to tell children about the rainforest than about right and wrong. Yet little children aren't very tempted to cut down rainforests.
   --Mary Warnock.

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