Arguments Against Compatibilism

We live in a scientific era where laws of nature can predict future events with near perfect accuracy. We have learned about the atomic particles that make up everything in our world, and how our everyday experiences are the result of billions of these atoms colliding with each other in specific ways. This seemingly causal nature of the universe poses serious challenges to the notion of free will. J.T. Ismael in her book, How Physics Makes Us Free, attempts to explain how modern science actually reveals that humans can possess free will. In making her argument she presents her refutations to perhaps the two greatest objections to compatibilism, the consequence argument and the basic argument. This essay will briefly explain the two arguments, Ismael’s replies to them, and then proceed to evaluate the effectiveness of her responses in refuting the objections.

The consequence argument is a refutation of free will based on the deterministic nature of physical laws. While people may feel as if there is more than one decision open to them when they seriously deliberate, the internal processes that play out in their mind are deterministic. The outcome of their decision making process had been set before the person started deliberating. The consequence argument, based off of this, is formulated as follows. Information about the past in conjunction with the laws of nature allow for perfect prediction of all facts of the future. As with everything else, people’s actions are the result of these two external circumstances. Since the past and the laws of nature are not under people’s control, people do not have control of their actions. This argument can be adapted for indeterministic cases as well. Even if the future were based on the past, the laws of nature, and quantum processes, people can not control these processes; therefore, people do not have command of their actions.

Ismael begins her argument by stressing the importance of people having pivotal control over their actions. Some replies to the consequence argument posit that people do indeed have control over their actions because actions depend counterfactually on choice and that this causal relationship is enough for free will. Ismael stresses that while it is true that if a person had made a different decision, a different action would have followed, if the person was unable to make any different decisions, that choice was never really open to them. She uses an analogy of a toaster to display the pivotal control necessary for free will. While toasters do indeed have internal processes, a series of internal springs, carriages, heating elements etc, the outcome of these processes is wholly determined by external forces. The internal processes do not play a decisive role in determining the fate of the toaster. Identical external conditions would produce identical outcomes from toasters. The expectation for free will in humans is to possess greater self-agency than toasters. Ismael sets internal processes having pivotal control over action as a condition for free will in humans. People must be able to act differently given the same external conditions for free will to exist.

Ismael’s argument affirming the pivotal role of internal processes in humans stresses how weak the conclusions of determinism really are, and the difference between the soft internal structure of humans in contrast to the hard structure of toasters. While determinism allows for perfect prediction of the future given the initial state of all matter and all the forces that influence the universe over a period of time, incomplete knowledge in either of these spheres guarantees no knowledge at all of the future. This point is meant to weaken the intuitive appeal of the consequence argument.

 Ismael also claims that the decision-making process of humans is extremely complex and changes with every experience. There is no direct relationship between stimulus and action; instead, stimulus is mediated through thoughtful self-reflection that may include consideration of any number of factors. Ismael claims that this self-reflection “has all the hallmarks of unpredictability,” as it is a constant, all encompassing, self-feeding process. It is so complicated that any equation that could draw a conclusion from all these variables would be impossible to solve, as anybody attempting to solve it would have to sift through infinite layers of feedback. In this way, the human structure for filtering stimuli into action is unpredictable or “soft.” Additionally, this self reflecting process is highly individualized because it is built through a unique set of stimuli and experiences. Different people would respond to the same stimuli differently. It is not merely external stimuli that plays the decisive role in decision making, but also the soft internal decision processes of humans. Through the ever-changing nature of the human stimuli-mediating structure, the focal point of pivotal control over action has moved inside the human system. Ismael claims this internal pivotal control is one way that human will is more free than that of other causally affected objects or animals.

The second argument Ismael refutes is the basic argument. The basic argument is a line of reasoning from Galen Strawson that states that a person’s inability to self-form renders them unable to have true free will and moral responsibility. It is formulated as follows. The way people act in certain circumstances are the result of who they are. Therefore, in order for them to be responsible for their actions, they must also be responsible for the way they are. The way people originally are is the result of genetic inheritance and early life experiences, factors they have no control over. Even if they try to change themselves in later life, they can not alter themselves in a truly free way. This inability is due to the fact that the changes they wish to make and their success at accomplishing these changes are determined by who they already are, a condition which has been determined by their genetics and previous experiences. Therefore, people can not ultimately be responsible for the way they are, so they cannot be responsible for their actions.

Ismael responds to this argument by pointing again to the mediating effect a person’s personal core has on outside influences. It is clear that a person is influenced by forces outside their control; however, these forces do not affect them directly, but are filtered through a personal core. This core is the amalgamation of their values, principles, and deep desires extracted out of their past experiences. This personal core, along with their soft reflective internal processes, interpret the outside stimuli to conceive of a resulting action. This process is self-feeding, as the processing of stimuli changes the reflective process that processes future stimuli. The important takeaway here is that the processing of outside stimuli is not a simple causal chain, but a complex mechanism where the outcome is more than merely the sum of influences. Instead, it is a self-formed and constantly self-forming structure. This greater-than-sum result is what Ismael considers the self, which not only mediates external influences on action, but also the effect of the environment on the formation of the self. This ability to not only influence how stimuli is interpreted into action but also change how these processes themselves work gives humans enough freedom to constitute moral responsibility. People are products of the past, but the more their reflection process changes from stimuli, the more they are a product of themselves. In contrast to what the basic argument posits, the self is not just a combination of upbringing and genetics, but a person’s reflection on their upbringing and genetics. People can change themselves, so even if their original self was the result of external stimuli, their ability to shape their personal core and reflective internal processes to handle stimuli differently means they not only have pivotal control over actions, but also pivotal control over that pivotal control.

The evaluation of the efficacy of Ismael’s responses to the consequence argument and the basic argument depends largely on what level of free will is considered true free will. For people who, like Ismael, believe that self-formation being a criteria for true free will is a ludicrous standard, Ismael’s self-governing-self view provides humans a level of choice sufficient for free will. She makes a valid point about the unpredictability and complexity of self-reflection also playing a role in who a person is, along with genetics and early life circumstances. While people have no control over the latter two factors, Ismael's view of the self having the volition and will to change itself appeals to an intuitive sense of free will. The ability to control part of who we become, even if our choices are limited by factors outside our control, seems like meaningful self-agency and enough freedom to constitute free will. On the other hand, Ismael’s arguments will never be enough to convince a strong incompatibilist. Her dismissal of self-creation as an impossibility might be the exact rationale used to reply to her argument. If someone believes that not only must a person’s self be greater than the sum of external influences, but also that they must have control over the conditions of their self creation in order to have true freedom, Ismael’s reply does not do enough. The objecter’s line of reasoning could be that despite the ability for individuals to self govern after their creation, if the conditions of their creation have a lasting influence on all future desires, including how they want to change themselves, then those factors that people do not control fundamentally influence who they become. Who a person is is predestined by their genetics and upbringing. Since humans do not self form, factors beyond their control like the conditions of their creation, will influence every part of their self governing process, therefore free will in humans cannot exist.