Monday, November 23, 2009

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 2

Shortly after posting my first critique of Smilansky's disproof of Libertarian Free Will, I ran across the book version of his argument. Google Books is awfully handy sometimes.

The argument in the book, as one might expect, provides more detail than the one he presents in the paper I critiqued. I should note that Smilansky emphasizes that his treatment of the issue in the book is also deliberately brief.

In this more developed account, Smilansky relies on the Principle of Sole Attribution, and he offers the following expression of the PSA:
Any feature F due to which a person deserves something S in the libertarian free will-dependent sense must, in the normatively relevant respects, be solely attributable to the person or to the pertinent aspect A of the person.
At first blush, the PSA seems like a human responsibility equivalent to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The latter, I think, qualifies as corollary of causal determinism. As for the PSA, Smilansky states that "solely attributable" constitutes the key.
For now, it suffices to define it negatively, in that no one or nothing beyond the person's authorship and control can be allowed, in the normatively relevant way, to have brought forth F, if the latter is to be a source for desert in the libertarian sense.
As there may be hidden assumptions in the above, I would decline to agree pending additional information. If I naturally like the taste of salt and cannot help liking salt, I do not see why that would take away my responsibility for eating salty foodstuffs so long as other conditions for libertarian free will were met.

It turns out, at least apparently, that Smilansky obtains his view from libertarian advocates such as C. A. Campbell:
Campbell manifestly attempts to meet something like the criteria laid down by the PSA. He takes a limited aspect of a person, focused on a narrow concept of desire, and calls it 'character.' He then invokes the 'self' as a latent power, which in certain situations can cause us to act contrary to our 'character' (i.e. contrary to our strongest desire).
I call it a mistake to suppose that the self does not cause outcomes corresponding to the strongest desire. The point should be that the self acts as the cause significantly regardless of the strongest desire, as illustrated by modeling LFW for a single act such as consuming potato chips.

Suppose "Homer" is repeatedly put through a trial under conditions x where he may eat potato chips or not eat potato chips. It isn't that Homer eats the potato chips unless the self intervenes. It is that either option is caused by the self without in turn being absolutely caused by something other than the self. So if Homer eats the potato chips 99 times out of 100 it still does not follow that the outcome was caused by the desire to eat potato chips as opposed to the self.

My illustration points up the difficulty of separating the character from the particular leaning of the will (the self) in making the actual decision. I think Smilansky tends to view the character in terms of causal determinism, hence the conclusion that the self would have overruled the character in order to avoid eating potato chips. That is, eating potato chips would have been causally determined. Doing other than eating potato chips would be the indeterministic self. I think Smilansky fails to keep to indeterminism in forming his critique. If an event happens only 99 times out of 100 under identical conditions then all 100 trials are indeterministic, not just one of them. Determinism by definition requires all 100 trials to reach the same outcome. Claiming any number short of that as deterministic creates a contradiction.

The problem comes out clearly in Smilansky's book when he turns to E. Walter for explanation:
"Even if it were plausible to introduce a 'self' to explain behaviour, we would say (a) that the self's decisions are determined by the self's attributes and (b) the character of the substance 'self' is (at least partially) determined at the moment of its inception in accord with whatever laws relate to the nativity of such recondite beings ... We would have no reasonable explanation for how the self gets to be the way it is unless it derives its character potential at birth."
(ellipsis reflects my edit)
Beyond the fact that Walter looks inclined to impose determinism as the explanation for indeterminism, he apparently waves off probabilistic explanations, such as the one I offered above, with no consideration at all.

From there, Smilansky invokes the whole of a Galen Strawson argument that I have tried and found wanting.

Smilansky subsequently summarizes the argument in two parts and surprises me with his follow up:
At this stage it might be said that my argument for the incoherence of a worthwhile sense of self is begging the question; I introduce the requirement of determinism and then am "surprised" to find that libertarian free will cannot meet it.
Bingo! But Smilansky tries to argue that the requirement of determinism is in turn required by the argument of the LFW advocate: "(W)e have not required from the libertarian more than she must require from herself: an account must be given, as to which non-arbitrary factor brought about the decision or action, and why."

Not surprisingly, that argument is circular in its turn.

Smilansky seems to overlook the fact that the LFW paradigm explicitly and intentionally fixes the self as the type of arbiter that he apparently finds unsuitable. The decisions of an arbiter are, in fact, unavoidably arbitrary in an essential sense. Arbiters arbitrate.

Consider an example. Parson Brown realizes that it would be wrong to trample his neighbor's petunias. Yet he feels as though he would enjoy trampling the petunias just the same. Given that Brown knows it is wrong to trample the Petunias, how can he be morally responsible if he tramples them? That is the question Smilanksy seems to offer. Yes, it seems arbitrary for Brown to trample the Petunias when he knows better. But it is precisely his knowledge that stepping on the flowers is wrong that gives him his moral responsibility for his behavior should he trample them in fact.

Doubtless it may be argued that the desire to trample the petunias was too great to resist--but once we take that route we're right back begging the question of libertarian action. Where indeterminism applies in this specific instance, a temptation too great to resist is an impossibility.

Smilansky is correct that the self must have some sort of nature or character. However, he appears to err in the assumption that said nature is necessarily deterministic (at least to achieve personal responsibility), and in the assumption that the self could not control decisions that alter said nature.


Smilansky takes up objections based on indeterminism in the next section of his book, so I will have reason to post a third part to this series.

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt 1

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 3

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