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Agency and Neuroscience: A Conversation Between Philosophy and Psychology

Kevin Timpe (with Response by James Van Slyke)

William H. Jellema Chair of Christian Philosophy, Calvin College
July 3, 2019

I often begin my ethics courses by telling my students that knowing what morality requires of us requires knowledge of two different things. First, one must know the general moral rules or principles which govern behavior of the type under consideration. Second, one must also know non-moral facts about the occasion if one is to be able to apply those general moral principles.

Let me illustrate how both kinds of knowledge are needed to guide our moral behavior. Suppose that, by reflection on the general ethical principles, we come to believe that morality requires that we buy those products we consume in a way that ensures that the producers of those products are treated in a just manner. That knowledge, by itself, is insufficient to guide our behavior. We also need to know how to apply that knowledge to particular cases. Suppose we want to know, for instance, how that general ethical principle should guide our behavior in buying coffee. By itself, it doesn’t tell us whether or not we ought to buy certified fair trade coffee. Fair Trade USA, a leading certifier of fair trade products in the US writes:

From far-away farms to your shopping cart, products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated. We help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities…With Fair Trade USA, the money you spend on day-to-day goods can improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives…. We seek to empower family farmers and workers around the world, while enriching the lives of those struggling in poverty.1

You might think, after reflecting on the above general ethical principle, that you should then only buy coffee that is certified fair trade. But a number of individuals claim that buying fair trade coffee doesn’t actually help the farmers and workers in the way that Fair Trade USA claims. Lawrence Solomon, a coffee merchant, reflects on a number of academic studies on the coffee industry and writes that “farmers producing for the fair trade market are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers.”2

If these studies are correct, then it might be that one is actually violating one’s ethical responsibility by buying fair trade coffee. We need to know not only the general principles but also how those principles apply ‘in the flesh,’ so to speak. The ethical (i.e., the philosophical) needs to be informed by the empirical.

I’d like to suggest that, in a parallel way, thinking carefully about human agency in general, and human free agency in particular, also requires two kinds of knowledge. We need to know general principles about the nature of agency and free will. But we also need to know how those general philosophical truths apply to creatures like us, creatures ‘in the flesh.’ How is it, for example, that the general nature of agency as applied to human agents should be shaped by what we know via psychology and neuroscience about the kinds of creatures humans are? The philosophical needs to be informed by the empirical. As Manuel Vargas writes in Building Better Beings, “contemporary science can illuminate particular cases, telling us important details about the presence or absence of things that matter for free will.”3

The Empirical in Need of the Philosophical

As should be clear from the previous section, I think that our best re-flection on agency will be informed by both philosophy and the empirical sciences. Though philosophers have been reflecting on the nature of free will since at least the time of Augustine (and on agency more broadly since at least the time of Plato), in recent years a number of influential scientists have also begun to directly address the topic, writing what are often scathing critiques of traditional philosophical reflection on the subject. We don’t need traditional philosophical work on free will, some of these scientists claim, because science now shows us that there is no such thing as free will. It is instead an illusion (or, for some of them, a delusion). In section 3, I’ll address a number of ways that I think scientific work has and should inform our philosophical reflection on free will. But here in section 2, I want to focus on some philosophical problems and confusions that plague some of the recent scientific work.

Jerry Coyne

I begin with looking at a ‘popular’ naturalist critique of free will given by Jerry Coyne, a biologist on faculty at the University of Chicago. In a series of recent, widely publicized articles, Coyne argues that none of our choices result from “free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will.”4 Coyne begins an article in The Chronicle Review as follows:

The term ‘free will’ has so many diverse connotations that I’m obliged to define it before I explain why we don’t have it. I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise.5 To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different. Although we can’t really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.6

There are a number of things worth unpacking in this quotation. The first is that Coyne clearly endorses what we might call an ‘alternative possibilities’ or ‘leeway’ conception of free will. According to this understanding of free will, free will is primarily a function of being able to do other wise than one in fact does.

Second, Coyne associates having the ability to do otherwise with a view that is called incompatibilism. Incompatibilism is the view that the existence of free will is incompatible with the truth of the thesis of causal determinism. Incompatibilism contrasts with compatibilism, according to which the existence of free will is compatible with the truth of causal determinism. Causal determinism—hereafter, simply ‘determinism’ for short—is the thesis that the course of the future is entirely determined by the conjunction of the non-relational past and the laws of nature. An event is causally determined just in case the event’s happening just as it did was necessitated by its causes and the laws of nature. So, to take a mundane example, imagine that you’re playing billiards. Imagine that you could somehow ‘pause’ a particular shot right after you struck the cue ball with your cue, and before the cue ball hits another ball. Let us call this time t1. Where the balls will end up on the table once the shot has been completed and all the balls have eventually come to rest—let’s call this time t2—is entirely a function of the location of the balls on the table when you struck the cue ball, the force and spin you hit the cue ball with, the various properties of the balls (their weight, etc.), and the laws of nature, here, the laws of physics (e.g., the law of conservation of energy, the law of angular momentum, the laws governing friction, etc.). So where the balls end up on the table at t2 is causally determined by how things are at t1 and the relevant laws of physics. If you were to ‘rerun’ the tape of the pool shot exactly how it had been performed the first time, the balls would end up in the exact same place on the table as they did on the original shot. Now, the thesis of causal determinism claims that everything is like the balls on the billiard table in this sense—everything that happens is causally necessitated by the past and the relevant laws of nature. And if you were to rerun the tape of the world, everything would happen exactly the same again. And, third, note that Coyne assumes, “simply and decisively,” that determinism is true. However, whether or not contemporary science has shown that the laws of physics entirely determine every event is a very contentious claim among philosophers and scientists. Is the actual world deterministic? Not obviously, despite what Coyne seems to think. It’s true that during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, most philosophers and scientists thought that it was. But the contemporary scientific consensus, if anything, seems to be that it’s false. At a recent conference on the intersection of science and religious belief, a Nobel Prize winning physicist said that most of the world’s leading physicists actually think that determinism is false, that at least some of the laws of physics are probabilistic rather than deterministic. Of course, it is possible that these leading physicists are wrong in their understanding of how the world operates. But is that likely? As Randolph Clarke has recently said in this context, “perhaps the best that can be said…is that…there is no good evidence that determinism is true.”7 But for present purposes let’s leave aside this empirical claim. Coyne’s claim that we lack free will also requires two philosophical claims, both of which are contentious.

Consider first the alternative possibilities conception of free will mentioned above. On this view, a person is able to do otherwise just in case she has alternative possibilities open to her at her moment of choice. For example, Sally freely watches the Cubs play if she could have gone to the museum instead, or gone for a walk in the park, or simply sat on her couch and done nothing. But there is another understanding of free will according to which free will isn’t primarily about whether or not one has available alternatives, but rather it is about whether or not the agent is the proper ‘source’ or ‘originator’ of her action. Call this conception of the essence of free will ‘the sourcehood conception.’8

Elsewhere, I’ve argued at some length that the sourcehood conception of free will is preferable to the alternative possibilities conception.9 At the heart of this argument is the claim that the alternative possibilities conception does not address the need for the agent involved to have control over which alternative possibility becomes actual in order to be free; but surely free will requires not just alternative possibilities but also, as Timothy O’Connor puts it, the ability for the agent in question to “determine which tendency will come to fruition on a particular occasion.”10 That is, what matters most for agency is the way that the action or decision in question comes from the agent’s agential structure. It isn’t my intention here to rehash all these traditional philosophical arguments. Rather, the present point is to note that Coyne’s equation of free will with the ability to do otherwise simply ignores the philosophical debate.

The second step of Coyne’s denial of free will is no less contentious. Remember from above that his argument proceeds roughly as follows: (i) determinism is true, (ii) free will just is the ability to do otherwise, and (iii) if determinism is true, everyone lacks the ability to do otherwise. We’ve already given some reason to think that Coyne’s assertion in (i) is false and his endorsement of (ii) is stipulated rather than argued for. But step (iii) in his argument is also problematic. Coyne clearly associates the having of alternative possibilities with libertarianism, which is the view that incompatibilism is true and that we have free will. Given the traditional understanding of libertarianism, it is not surprising that he makes this assumption. For if libertarianism is true, then whenever a person has free will with respect to doing some particular action X, it is causally open to her both to do X and not to do X. And while this is perhaps the most natural way of understanding the alternative possibilities condition, there are a number of compatibilists who also think that free will is primarily a function of having the ability to do otherwise. Consider, for example, Kadri Vihvelin’s impressive book, Causes, Laws, and Free Will: Why Determinism Doesn’t Matter, which defends a compatibilist account of free will which includes the ability to do otherwise.11 Coyne calls compatibilism a ‘cop-out.’12 The fact that most contemporary philosophers are compatibilists (as well as naturalists) should give the blithe dismissal of compatibilism by Coyne and others particularly perplexing.13

Now, elsewhere I’ve argued against this compatibilist-friendly way of understanding the alternative possibilities condition.14 So I think that Coyne’s (iii) is true. However, (iii) is a claim that must be argued for philosophically and cannot be merely stipulated from the scientific armchair. How could scientific investigation prove that compatibilist accounts of the ability to do otherwise are false? That is, how could empirical science show that a claim about the logical compatibility between two things is true? The short answer is that it can’t; claims about logical possibility just aren’t the kinds of things that we discover via scientific inquiry. Coyne here is guilty of overreach.

I’ll make one final point regarding Coyne, which builds upon the others. As seen above, Coyne thinks that our having free will would require us to be able to do otherwise in a way that the alleged truth of determinism actually rules out. As a result, he thinks that anyone who thinks we have free will is committed to substance dualism—roughly, the view that human persons are immaterial souls or minds distinct from their physical bodies.15 Consider the following passage:

To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its working. That is impossible. Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made. As such, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that we can make alternative choices, for that’s a claim that our brains, unique among all forms of matter, are exempt from the laws of physics by a spooky, nonphysical ‘will’ that can redirect our own molecules.16

The substance dualist thinks that a person’s immaterial soul can causally interact with her physical body. (Of course, explaining how this interaction takes places is one of the main objections to substance dualism, one which Descartes—the poster-child for substance dualism—was well aware of.) If belief in free will requires belief in an immaterial soul (or other ‘panicky metaphysics’ that are super-natural), then it will not be surprising that the naturalistic scientists like Coyne will reject its existence, given their dismissal of things non-natural. But as Al Mele has pointed out, scientific objections to free will which are based on the claim that it requires substance dualism are misguided.17 And as Manual Vargas points out, “all serious accounts of free will make no appeal to substance dualism. Moreover, when one considers the empirical evidence about folk beliefs concerning the requirements of free will, the evidence seems to show that on ordinary usage, ‘free will’ does not require substance dualism.”18

Sam Harris

I move on then to a recent book, Free Will, by cognitive neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris. Like Coyne, Harris thinks that free will is simply an illusion; but his reason for thinking so differs from Coyne’s:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.19

Commenting on Harris’ book, Eddy Nahmias has described the central thrust as follows: “Given his other books, one would expect science to drive Harris’s conclusions, but here his argument is conceptual. Step 1: Define free will in such a way that it is impossible. Step 2: Remind us that we cannot have what is impossible.”20 But this way of approaching the matter, Nahmias writes, is naive: “My response is just as simple: Harris’s definition of free will is mistaken. To have free will, people don’t need the impossible; nor do most people think free will requires the impossible.”21

Now, not all of Harris’ book is this obviously problematic. He does, despite repeatedly falling into the problem Nahmias notes above, offer an argument against free will. And whereas Coyne’s argument for the illusory nature of free will is built on the problematic assumption of determinism, Harris’ argument is built on a disjunction: either determinism is true or it’s false. But, he thinks, either disjunct leads to the same conclusion: we lack free will. Let us explore each of these disjuncts in more detail.

We begin with the first horn of the dilemma: if determinism is true, then we lack free will. Harris’ reasons for thinking this are much the same as Coyne’s—namely that free will requires “that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past.”22 That is, like Coyne, Harris identifies free will with the ability to do otherwise which, he claims, we would lack if determinism were true. Unlike Coyne, however, Harris at least considers the possibility of compatibilism:

Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist—because we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware. However, the ‘free will’ that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have…What does it mean to say that rapists and murderers commit their crimes of their own free will? If this statement means anything, it must be that they could have behaved differently [that is, that they could have done otherwise].23

But Harris accuses the compatibilist of “changing the subject” and being “deliberately obtuse.”24 There are two things worth noting here. First, consider a relatively recent movement which goes by the name ‘experimental philosophy.’ A number of philosophers, sometimes in collaboration with social scientists, have begun to study the folk’s views about the relationship between free will and determinism.25 Their data suggests that contrary to what Harris claims, many (perhaps even most) of the ‘folk’ are compatibilists. However, even if Harris was correct that the folk tended to be incompatibilists about free will and determinism, that wouldn’t by itself mean that the folk were right. What is needed to establish the modal relationship between free will and determinism is philosophical argument. Those involved in giving such arguments are neither ‘changing the subject’ nor being ‘deliberately obtuse.’ While I think that compatibilism is false, one needs to provide an argument for that claim—and a better argument than Harris gives.

What, then, of the other horn of the dilemma? That is, what implications would the falsity of determinism have for free will? Harris thinks that indeterminism is no more conducive to freedom than is determinism. If an event is not determined by previous events and the laws of nature, then such an event is ‘lucky.’ If an event (or action) is lucky for an individual, then she lacks control over it. And if an agent lacks control over whether or not she does some event (or action), then she does not do it freely. “The role of luck,” Harris writes, “therefore, appears decisive.”26 But his treatment of the relevant philosophical literature is far from decisive.

There are philosophically sophisticated versions of the same kind of argument that Harris is making here. The best that I’m aware of is Neil Levy’s Hard Luck, which is a wonderful treatment of the threat that luck plays for freedom and responsibility.27 What Levy’s treatment illustrates, and what Harris’ lacks, is an understanding of and engagement with the relevant philosophical material that doesn’t make such questionable assumptions of the sort mentioned above.

Other Naturalist Themes

My discussion so far regarding Coyne and Harris admittedly hasn’t engaged what they say scientifically about free will. Rather, I have focused on ways their approaches are philosophically confused. And in this, they’re not alone.28 Many other scientists make similar claims about the non-existence of free will. Psychologist Daniel Wegner concludes his The Illusion of Conscious Will saying that while “it seems we are agents, …it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion.”29 Perhaps no scientific work on free will has received more attention than Benjamin Libet’s experiments on readiness potentials30 or Chun Siong Soon’s work on “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.”31 Philosophers have, to my mind, shown the problematic philosophical assumptions in these, admittedly interesting, studies.32 Now, none of this means that scientists writing on free will and agency shouldn’t engage the topic; rather I’m raising the worry that so far they’ve done so in a very naive way. I’d also suggest that those engaged in future scientific work should be more sensitive to the relevant philosophical literature that can help them approach the issues better. In the next section, I want to spell out some ways that philosophical work on free will can and should be informed by relevant scientific work.

The Philosophical Need for the Empirical

In his work on ethics, Owen Flanagan endorses a meta-ethical principle which he calls ‘the Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism’:

Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal, that the character, decision processes, and behaviour prescribed are possible, or are perceived to be possible for creatures like us [that is, for members of the species homo sapiens].33

Flanagan’s principle seems worth adopting if we want our moral theory to have traction in our lives. Of course, the exact parameters of the constraints placed on a moral theory will depend on what other disciplines tell us about what kinds of character, decision processes, and behavior are possible for humans. But that’s just to say that our ethical theory needs to take seriously the knowledge we gain from other disciplines.

Along similar lines, I’d like to suggest ‘the Principle of Minimal Agential Realism’:

Make sure, when constructing a theory of agency, that the kinds of powers, capacities, and outputs posited by that theory could, for all we know, be had by us.34

The Principle of Minimal Agential Realism is a version of what Vargas calls the ‘standard of naturalistic plausibility’: “on a standard of naturalistic plausibility the account requires something that speaks in its favor beyond mere coherence with the known facts…We seek a theory that has something to be said for it, in light of what we know about the natural world.”35 In the rest of this section, I want to lay out a number of ways that I think scientific work can help inform an account of free agency in a way that respects the principle of Minimal Agential Realism.

Luck and Development

As mentioned above, I think that Neil Levy gives one of the best philosophical challenges to the existence of free will based on luck. I want to show how I think work in developmental psychology and neuroscience might be able to help us meet that challenge. But first, a bit of set-up.

Levy’s argument from luck to the conclusion that we lack free will (and, as a result, moral responsibility) builds on Thomas Nagel’s work on moral luck. According to Nagel, moral luck is involved “where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment.”36 Nagel differentiates four kinds of luck that might be at work in moral luck:

  1. Resultant luck: luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out; 

  2. Causal luck: luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances; 

  3. Circumstantial luck: luck in the kinds of problems and situations one faces; 

  4. Constitutive luck: luck regarding the kind of person you are, where this is not just a question of what you deliberately do, but of your inclinations, capacities, and temperament.37

Of these four kinds, I want to focus on constitutive luck. How we respond as agents in various situations will depend largely on the kinds of agents we are. If, like me, you’re a glutton with respect to coffee consumption, then how often you order a coffee (daily) and what kind you get (a quad-shot over ice) will be significantly influenced by your character traits. John Kronen and Eric Reitan articulate this point about an agent’s volitional structure in a different context. They write that an agent’s “moral character influences, often decisively, what one does or does not do. In other words, one’s moral character gives rise to motives for actions, the totality of which excludes some actions, permits others, and necessitates still others.”38

But this makes all the more pressing the problem of constitutive luck. That is, we need to recognize that “how an agent came to have his values, beliefs, and desires is irrelevant to whether he is responsible for actions motivated by or expressive of these values, beliefs, and so on.”39 But what philosophers then need is an account of how human agents go from being non-free and non-responsible agents at some point in the past (my infant daughter is a good example of such an agent at present) to developing the kind of agential structure which avoids the problem of control-undermining constitutive luck and is sufficient for free will. A number of philosophers are aware of the need to address this issue. Manuel Vargas, for instance, raises the issue:

Consider the question of how we go from being unfree agents to free agents. This is a puzzle faced by all accounts of responsibility, but there is something pressing about it in the case of libertarianism. As children we either had the indeterministic structures favored by your favorite version of libertarianism or we lacked them. If we lacked them as children, we might wonder how we came to get those structures. We might also wonder what the evidence is for thinking that we do develop said structures.40

But this is an issue that I think hasn’t received sufficient attention in the contemporary philosophical literature, and I know of no significant attempt to tell the kind of developmental story needed here in a way that overcomes constitutive luck regarding the building blocks of her moral character. This is, in my view, a serious lacuna.41 And if we’re to not run afoul of the Principle of Minimal Agential Realism, this development story will need to take seriously what developmental psychology and neuroscience tell us about what humans are like. So this is one place where I think future philosophical work on free will needs to be aware of and informed by scientific work.

Situational Agency

The second place I want to highlight where scientific work can help inform a more empirically adequate account of agency comes from the Situationism literature. Situationism primarily comes up in philosophical reflection on virtue and moral character, but for reasons I outline below it also should impact reflection on agency as well.

The development of Situationism began with Attributionism, a branch of psychology that seeks to differentiate what is rightly attributable to an individual’s character from what is rightly attributable to outside features. The relationship between this branch of psychology and the worries about constitutive luck in the previous section should be obvious. Much of attribution theory attributes a significantly higher proportion of the causal basis of behavior to external factors and less to moral character than traditionally thought. According to such theorists, most individuals overestimate the role of dispositional factors such as moral character in explaining an individual’s behavior, and underestimate the role the situation plays in explaining an agent’s behavior. Gilbert Harmon expresses this idea as follows:

In trying to characterize and explain a distinctive action, ordinary thinking tends to hypothesize a corresponding distinctive characteristic of the agent and tends to overlook the relevant details of the agent’s perceived situation. Ordinary attributions of character traits to people are often deeply misguided and it may even be the case that there…[are] no ordinary traits of the sort people think there are.42

Philosophers such as Harman and John Doris43 have used this work in the social sciences to develop Situationism as an alternative approach to moral character. Situationism can be understood as comprised of three central claims:

  1. Non-robustness Claim: moral character traits are not robust—that is, they are not consistent across a wide spectrum of trait-relevant situations. Whatever moral character traits an individual has are situation-specific. 

  2. Consistency Claim: although a person’s moral character traits are relatively stable over time, this should be understood as consistency of situation-specific traits, rather than robust traits. 

  3. Fragmentation Claim: a person’s moral character traits do not have the evaluative integrity suggested by the Integrity Claim.44 There may be considerable disunity in a person’s moral character among her situation-specific character traits. 

The Situationist’s approach to moral character has had a large impact on ethics.45 But it is now also being brought into discussion with agency. Al Mele and Joshua Shepherd argue that we should have an optimistic response to the Situationist literature insofar as “though psychological research indicates situational influence, it also indicates that knowledge about the impact of situations on behavior can boost agents’ power to counteract harmful situational effects.”46 The thrust of Mele and Shephard’s article is not that the impact of situational factors should lead us to be pessimistic about our moral character and agency; rather, they argue the more we are aware of these situational features, the more we can use that knowledge to shape our own, and others’, agency. Here is one study they mention:

Melissa Bateson and colleagues (Bateson et al. 2006) conducted an experiment in the office of the Psychology Department at the University of Newcastle. The office keeps coffee, tea, and milk on hand. Department members pay for the drinks by voluntarily depositing money in an ‘honesty box.’ Bateson and colleagues tweaked this system in an interesting way. On a cupboard door located above the honesty box and the drink-making supplies, they posted an instruction sheet with the following suggestions: 30 pence for tea, 50 pence for coffee, 10 pence for milk. In addition to these suggestions, the sheet included an image: either a pair of eyes looking at the observer or flowers. The experiment ran for ten weeks. Each week the experimenters switched the image and recorded the amount of money given that week.

Contributions to the honesty box reliably tracked the change in images. Each time the experimenters replaced the flowers with watching eyes, contributions rose. And each time they replaced the watching eyes with flowers, contributions dropped. On average, department members contributed 2.76 times more money when the eyes were watching (Bateson et al. 2006, p. 412).47

Mele and Shepherd suggest that by being aware of the impact situational factors have on our choices, we can mitigate some of that impact. They point to some recent work involving the Implicit Association Test,48 where participants were successful in reducing the disparity in the time of their responses when that disparity was pointed out and they were asked to retake the test. And in a recent paper, Manuel Vargas argues that Situationism can call into question a number of common philosophical assumptions about free agency: atomism (the view “that whether a given agent has free will and/or is capable of being morally responsible can, at least in principle, be determined simply by reading off the properties of just the agent”49) and monism (the view “that there is only one natural power or arrangement of agential features that constitutes free will or the control condition on moral responsibility”50). In contrast to both of these assumptions,

Psychological research suggests that what appears to us as a general capacity of reasons-responsiveness is really a cluster of more specific, ecologically limited capacities indexed to particular circumstances. Consequently, what powers we have are not had independently of situations. What capacity we have for responding to reasons is not some single thing, some fixed structure or cross-situationally stable faculty.51

While I’m not convinced of all the details of Vargas’ work, that need not concern us here. What I think Vargas’ article does well is show us that the model of agency that many philosophers work with is at odds with what the relevant empirical literature shows us about the kinds of agents that we are. And here is exactly where I think the philosophical needs to be better informed by the empirical.

Mele and Shepherd conclude their article by suggesting that good scientific research on the effects of unconscious processes on behavior should be encouraged, as should good critiques of that work. We value knowledge of the springs of human behavior for its own sake, but such knowledge has instrumental value as well, including the value that the cautiously optimistic perspective we have developed highlights. Sometimes, we said, knowledge is power. Here is another way to put it: sometimes, forewarned is forearmed.52

My hope, both in terms of this exchange and the larger conversation that we’re hoping to start, is that we can be forearmed in just this way.53

Part 2: James Van Slyke’s Response to Kevin Timpe

Dr. Timpe’s essay contained a number of excellent points, many of which could be discussed; I’ve tried to develop a response related to several of the important ones. Since my essay is obviously highly dependent on empirical science, it should be obvious that I fully agree with Timpe’s emphasis on the need for empirical science to help inform one’s position on free will. Timpe’s critique of Coyne and Harris in regard to their hidden philosophical assumptions was highly accurate and demonstrates the problematic aspects of attempting a science of X for a variety of fields. For my response, I primarily focus on personal problems I’ve encountered in forming a philosophical position on free will. In that sense, it’s a type of confession with some attempts at coherence at the end.

Determinism or Free Will? I Don’t Know

I used to teach an introduction to philosophy course, and one of my favorite lectures was on determinism. When you ask students what their position is on the matter they are almost always overwhelmingly libertarians. Since many of them are still in the early stages of life (with a dash of American “boot-strap” mentality), they are highly confident that they are the captains of their own destinies—their careers, their loves, their city of residence, and their quality of life will be determined solely by themselves. So, of course, like any deviously cunning philosophy instructor, I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy poking lots of holes in these assumptions.

My favorite question to help explain determinism is, “do we choose love or does love choose us?” I have one of the students who is in a relationship describe how they met, what was attractive to them about the other person, what are some significant moments in their lives together, etc. Then, I demonstrate how different events determined them to be together: they never actually chose to be together, rather a series of antecedent conditions made it the case that they are now in a relationship with each other. Interestingly, the person whose relationship I am using as an example usually pauses at this point and begins to wonder if they did choose or not. The rest of the class is in a complete uproar. “No!” The person insists that he or she chose at this point or that point in their history. Then I calmly re-direct them and say, “No, it may feel like there was a choice, but the outcome was determined by this or that event.” Then the students bring up the, “But, what if!” defense: what if they hadn’t met at this point, what if they didn’t go to the same school, what if he or she had cheated. At that point I usually say something like, “You know ‘what ifs’ are cute, sentimental, and sweet, but the reality is that they did not happen—the ability to imagine a multitude of different possibilities does not change what did happen.”

Then, students typically ask, “Are you a determinist? Don’t you believe in free will? How can you be a Christian and not believe in free will?” At this point I just smile and tell the students I will not tell them what my position is because I want them to develop their own informed view on the subject. This is definitely something I do value, but the reason I don’t share my position with the students is actually much, much worse than an appeal to pedagogical method. In reality, my position on free will is guilty of the ultimate academic sin; I don’t know what my position actually is! I don’t have a clearly defined, well-defended, logically consistent position with a hip philosophical term attached to it. I sometimes feel like a determinist who flirts with compatibilism, but wishes he were a libertarian. Now that I’ve confessed to my ultimate of academic sins, I’d like to respond to Dr. Timpe’s wonderful piece by noting the interminable struggles in the debate and trying to articulate my cobbled-together view on free will.

Properties of the World and Properties of the Person

I think that one’s position on free will is dependent on two types of questions, one about the properties of the world and another about the properties of the person. In regard to the properties of the world, the primary issue is whether the laws of physics (and/or other sciences) determine every event. If that is true, then determinism seems to be true unless someone adopts some form of dualism, which I am reluctant to do. Oftentimes quantum indeterminacy (the observation that the behavior of atomic particles is not fully predictable) is used as evidence that natural laws do not determine every event, but it seems highly problematic trying to understand how you get indeterminacy to “trickle up” from atoms to persons.

The primary problem is that I am simply not a physicist, so I don’t feel qualified to answer the question regarding the possible determinate properties of the world. I tend to view the world as open within particular constraints or regularities that allow for a certain amount of freedom for different actions. So an analogy would be that the laws of nature make it the case that thrust plus a proper wing span will allow a plane to get off the ground, but they don’t necessarily determine the plane’s ultimate destination. In a similar fashion, this is what allows for the evolution of different species. The environment provides certain constraints on the types of adaptations that would enable different species to survive and reproduce, but does not determine the specific adaptation. Gills would never evolve in the desert, but different species have evolved a variety of different types of adaptions to survive in an environment with little water.

Since I don’t feel very confident in my answer about the properties of the world, my position on free will is primarily dependent on answering questions about the properties of the person. My position is something like this: persons have less freedom than they often assume in most circumstances, but persons do have a certain amount of freedom to structure their internal responses and external environments to reach certain types of goals. I’m intentionally avoiding the term free will here, because ‘will’ is thought to be a ‘something,’ which seems to commit us to some form of dualism. This is one of several problems with Harris’ account described by Timpe: “Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Once Harris makes the rhetorical move of “our wills” it becomes seemingly much easier to dismiss the will as wishful fantasy or a “ghost in the machine.”

Freedom, however, is a skill—it’s a verb. It’s something that persons exercise in particular contexts with sufficient maturity and moral development. Alasdair MacIntyre calls this type of skill practical reasoning based on an “ability to detach themselves from the immediacy of their own desires, their capacity to imagine alternative realistic futures, and their disposition to recognize and to make true practical judgments concerning a variety of kinds of good.”54 When we are younger we have very little freedom in regard to this kind of ability, but as we mature, we create a certain amount of space for agency in certain circumstances. Some people do not; some people do not mature in this way and are continually a prisoner of their own unwanted desires and the resultant outcomes, similar to an addict.

This important skill can be understood as a form of thinking about thinking or “going meta”; it is the ability for one’s cognitive, affective, or behavioral states to become the object of current cognitive processing.55 However, as psychological science continually demonstrates, this form of cognition is limited in duration and taxing on the system, making it somewhat challenging to develop as a skill; it is not necessarily a cognitive default. However, it is this ability that allows for the reflection and planning of different types of habit formation and skill acquisition in the pursuit of different goal states that are distinctive from our current cognitive and behavioral trajectories. This is where a certain amount of freedom exists for persons and is a possible psychological component for Timpe’s sourcehood conception of free will.


Another specter that is often introduced against human freedom is situationism, the thesis that primarily contextual factors define human behavior, not character or other internal traits or habits. My interpretation of the situationist literature is slightly different from what John Doris and others have proposed.56 One of the primary experiments used to defend situationism is the Milgrim experiment, where persons were asked to administer an electric shock to help facilitate learning in a participating researcher.57 Under the tutelage of an instructor, persons would continually administer shocks during the experiments despite the staged cries of the participants. These were ‘normal’ Caucasian suburbanites, whom most persons assumed could never be induced to harm others simply based on social pressure.

The study rightly demonstrates that our assumptions about the average human being’s ability to overcome social pressure are overly optimistic, but even in the study, a small percentage of persons refused to continually administer shocks. Thus, the average person may be susceptible, but this simply confirms the difficulty of achieving freedom of action and conscience; human freedom and moral exemplarity is rare and often difficult to achieve. Thus, to achieve freedom of action one of the primary goals must be to change one’s context and environment in order to facilitate the achievement of different types of goals. This is actually something we do every day. If I want to bring a book with me to work, I put it with my keys and wallet. This way I don’t have to remember to get the book as I’m leaving—I’ve put it in a place with objects I use to get to work to help facilitate my goal without having to remember it. I’ve structured my environment in such a way as to increase the likelihood of achieving my goal of getting the book to work. Meta-cognition allows us to structure our environments and social situations to aid in the achievement of different types of goals.

Another consequence of situationism is to associate freedom with groups of people rather than individuals. Free will is often defined as an individual characteristic or property that is exercised by solitary individuals based on individual willpower. However, our social nature does not necessarily have to be a deficit, but could instead be used to contribute to cooperative goals or values among a group of like-minded persons. Thus, our freedom is partially constituted by our dependency on others and our development of social structures that help to facilitate our goals. Our freedom is significantly determined by our relationships with others and the development of communal habits that continually reinforce the goals we are hoping to achieve.

Part 3: Kevin Timpe’s Reply to James Van Slyke

By now, the level of agreement—especially regarding the more general features of the how science can inform our reflection on agency—between James Van Slyke and I ought to be apparent. A worry that I have regarding this third stage of our engagement is that the very nature of the exercise encourages us to focus on the points of disagreement, despite the fact that those points of disagreement may in fact be almost negligible when compared to the extent of our agreement. Furthermore, I’m a professional philosopher. And while I love my discipline, it can encourage a kind of intellectual myopia that I think can be problematic, especially when it comes to a discussion aimed at being inclusive with respect to its audience. I hope that in what follows I do not fail into either of these dangers that I hope to avoid.

In his comments on my original piece, Van Slyke says that one’s position on free will is dependent on two types of questions: one about the properties of the world and the second is about the properties of the person. We both are inclined to reject that the world is deterministic.58 I don’t think we get to the falsity of causal determinism by rejecting dualism or from the apparent fact that we have free will. I think the reason we should think that causal determinism is false is that our current best theories about the relevant sciences suggest that it is.59

As an incompatibilist, I think that a fact about the world (namely the truth or falsity of determinism) is crucial to understanding our free agency. So on my view, the facts about the physical world are relevant to whether or not we are free, since we are part of the physical world. But even if the falsity of determinism is necessary for our being free, it doesn’t entail that we are free. And so like Van Slyke, I think that properties of agents (what he calls ‘persons’) are relevant to whether or not we do have free will. I’m inclined to think that free will is a capacity—or more accurately, a set of capacities—and not a skill.60 What are all the relevant capacities? That’s not an easy question to answer, though I think they’ll include cognitive capacities, volitional capacities, and even affective capacities. Further scientific investigation can help us understand these capacities and their interconnections more thoroughly. But how these various capacities interact to form the capacity of free will is, in my view, not itself a scientific task—or, perhaps better, not merely a scientific task. It’s also an inherently philosophical task. And this is one reason I endorse the Principle of Minimal Agential Realism that I introduced in my first round comments. In this context, I think that Van Slyke’s closing comments about meta-cognition and the importance of structuring our social circumstances in a certain way to be very helpful. It is scientific work on these sorts of issues that I think is particularly worth us pursuing in the future. And I hope that our exchange might help us see how some of that worthwhile future work might go.


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