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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
J.J.C. Smart

J.J.C. Smart, in his July 1961 Mind article Free-Will, Praise and Blame (reprinted in in Dworkin, 1970), put forward what became a paradigm for the standard argument against free will, used by a generation of philosophers after him to refute libertarian metaphysical free will, showing it to be self-contradictory by philosophical analysis.

Smart's call for modifying our common attitudes of praise and blame is the theme of modern hard incompatibilists, illusionists, and revisionists who claim free will is an illusion that requires the elimination of punishment for retributive reasons.

His paper appeared shortly after Peter Strawson's landmark article Freedom and Resentment, which argued that even if free will did not exist, we would not give up our natural "reactive" attitudes toward praise and blame, a position that was first defended by David Hume as naturalism.

The combination of these two papers was toxic for libertarianism. The main focus of discussion shifted from free will to moral responsibility. Many philosophers, though remaining agnostic on the truth of determinism or indeterminism, began to argue that free will is an illusion, with some calling for society to eliminate retributive punishment.

They argue that without free will no one deserves punishment. Society should punish only if it produces consequences that improve the behavior of criminals.

Among the philosophers defending positions of "hard incompatibilism" and "illusionism" based on Smart's argument are Derk Pereboom, Galen Strawson, Manuel Vargas, Saul Smilansky, and the Harvard psychologists Daniel Wegner and Joshua Greene.

Here are excerpts from Smart's paper. Note that he too calls for us "to examine how our conclusions ought to modify our common attitudes of praise and blame."

Free-Will, Praise and Blame (excerpts)
In this article I try to refute the so-called "libertarian" theory of free will, and to examine how our conclusions ought to modify our common attitudes of praise and blame. In attacking the libertarian view, I shall try to show that it cannot be consistently stated. That is, my discussion will be an "analytic-philosophical" one. I shall neglect what I think is in practice an equally powerful method of attack on the libertarian: a challenge to state his theory in such a way that it will fit in with modern biology and psychology, which are becoming increasingly physicalistic.

It is difficult to state clearly just what is the metaphysical view about free will to which I object. This is because it seems to me to be a self-contradictory one, and in formal logic any proposition whatever can be shown to follow from a contradiction.

What is this metaphysical view about free will that I wish to attack? Its supporters usually characterise it negatively, by contrasting it with what it is not, namely determinism on the one hand and pure chance or caprice on the other.

Those who hold that determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible with one another do not, of course, hold that we are responsible for those of our actions which are due to pure chance. Somehow they want our moral choices to be neither determined nor a matter of chance. Campbell has a word for it: he says that our moral choices are instances of "contra-causal freedom." There is not "unbroken causal continuity" in the universe, but we are sometimes able to choose between "genuinely open possibilities." None of these concepts is at all precisely defined by Campbell, but I propose to give definitions of "unbroken causal continuity" and of "pure chance" that may be acceptable to him, and to like-minded thinkers, and I shall then enquire whether in the light of these definitions there is any room for "contra-causal freedom" and "genuinely open possibilities."

Dl. I shall state the view that there is "unbroken causal continuity" in the universe as follows. It is in principle possible to make a sufficiently precise determination of the state of a sufficiently wide region of the universe at time to, and sufficient laws of nature are in principle ascertainable to enable a superhuman calculator to be able to predict any event occurring within that region at an already given time t'.

D2. I shall define the view that "pure chance" reigns to some extent within the universe as follows. There are some events that even a superhuman calculator could not predict, however precise his knowledge of however wide a region of the universe at some previous time.

These definitions are themselves far from being precise. What does it mean to say that "sufficient laws of nature are in principle ascertainable"? The difficulty here comes from talking of the universe as deterministic or indeterministic. A perfectly precise meaning can be given to saying that certain theories are deterministic or indeterministic (for example that Newtonian mechanics is deterministic, quantum mechanics indeterministic), but our talk about actual events in the world as being determined or otherwise may be little more than a reflection of our faith in prevailing types of physical theory. It may therefore be that when we apply the adjectives "deterministic" and "indeterministic" to the universe as opposed to theories, we are using these words in such a way that they have no sense. This consideration does not affect our present inquiry, however. For the believer in free will holds that no theory of a deterministic sort or of a pure chance sort will apply to everything in the universe: he must therefore envisage a theory of a type which is neither deterministic nor indeterministic in the senses of these words which I have specified by the two definitions DI and D2; and I shall argue that no such theory is possible.

Smart admits that "pure chance" [by which he means quantum uncertainty] exists to some extent within the universe. But he does not use chance to generate alternative possibilities that would permit one to have done otherwise. Instead he looks for multiple senses of "could have done otherwise."
There are some events that even a superhuman calculator could not predict, however precise his knowledge of however wide a region of the universe at some previous time...It is important to distinguish "pure chance" from "chance" or "accident." Things may happen by chance or accident in a purely deterministic universe...Now there is perhaps a sense of "could not have done otherwise" in which whether or not a person could or could not have done otherwise depends on whether or not the universe is deterministic...But it does not follow that if a person could not have done otherwise in this special sense then he could not have done otherwise in any ordinary sense. Taken in any ordinary sense, within some concrete context of daily life, "he could have done otherwise" has no metaphysical implications. (p.199-201)
The structure of Smart's argument purporting to show that determinism is true seems very simple. He claims there are only two definitions of how things can be, that they are exhaustive and mutually exclusive. One is determinist, the other involves "chance." Moral responsibility is impossible with "chance." Q.E.D.

Determinism and indeterminism are the two horns of the dilemma in the standard argument against free will. Most recent philosophers follow Smart in his simple proof that a theory of free will is impossible.

Smart is an extreme case of those who believe quantum indeterminism might be a direct cause of action. He said:

"Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug."
(Atheism and Theism, 2003, p.63)

Smart's article was an attack on the "contra-causal freedom" of C. A. Campbell. Campbell responded in an article in Mind a couple of years later,

'It seems to me patent that Smart has really begged the whole question in his formulation of D2 ("pure chance "). This formulation is quite unacceptable as a basis for argument about whether " contra-causal freedom" exists, for implicit within it is the assumption that " contra-causal freedom " does not exist. It is only by making this assumption that it can seem proper to define " pure chance " in Smart's way, as though it were the contradictory, and not the contrary, opposite of " unbroken causal continuity ". If, making this assumption, we do so define it, then of course any case of a breach of causal continuity is eo ipso a case of " pure chance "; and the Libertarian's " contra-causal freedom ", which involves a breach of causal continuity and yet is not a case of " pure chance ", has been quietly ruled out by definition.'
It was difficult for Campbell to promote his idea that freedom was not "pure chance," since Smart's logic seems so simple and compelling. The real error in Smart's work is to assume that if any chance at all exists, then everything is random. We need a limited indeterminism.

And Smart had a deep physical reason for denying the existence of chance. In his 1964 book Problems of Space and Time (p.297), Smart introduced Hermann Minkowski's 1908 "block universe" in which Smart sees a future that has already happened.

In his 1989 book Our Place in the Universe, Smart describes his space-time view that the future of the universe is just as determinate as the past and present, even given quantum mechanical indeterminism. He calls himself a "de-tenser" who recognizes the asymmetry of memory traces that makes us plan for the future, but not the past, as an illusion.
For most purposes we can regard the laws of nature as time-symmetrical. I think it unlikely that the illusion of time asymmetry that we experience when we think that time flows one way is related to the difference between T symmetry and CPT symmetry. It seems that the sort of explanation of memory traces and so on which is based on Reichenbach's theory of branch systems, in the context of statistical mechanics, is on the right track and that it would work just as well if the laws of nature were completely time-symmetric, as indeed to a high degree they actually are. In any case we do not need any notion of time flow in order to explain the temporal asymmetry of the universe, in particular the asymmetry with respect to traces. Even if the notion of time flow made sense, explanations by reference to it would be too facile.


Planning is an information flow process and in view of the asymmetry about traces information flows from earlier to later. Thus we plan for the future and steel ourselves against future pain. Since planning is of use for survival, our different attitudes to past and future have been built into our species by natural selection. We may say 'Thank goodness that's over' because there is now no need to make plans or worry more. Of course a trait that has been selected because it is useful for survival need not be useful in all ways or circumstances. A prisoner who knows that he will be executed next day will feel fear and apprehension and will be far more unhappy in consequence. Fear has a general usefulness, since it promotes avoiding action, for example when a person is confronted by a poisonous snake, but that does not mean that it is useful when avoiding action is impossible. Does the possibility of planning the future imply that the future is indeterminate? On the space-time view the future must of course be determinate. Some readers may sense a difficulty here. (p.44-5)

Some philosophers have differed from the line taken in the present book in that they have taken a fundamentally tensed view of truth. Propositions about the future, such philosophers hold, are neither true nor false, though they will become true or become false. In other words, they hold that the future is indeterminate. They think that as the future becomes present and then past it changes from being indeterminate to being determinate. This is to suppose a type of change that in chapter 2 I have given reasons for rejecting. The future is perfectly determinate, up there ahead of us in Minkowski space-time. There can be indefiniteness, as with the position or momentum of a particle, on account of quantum mechanics, but this indefiniteness is no more in the future than in the past: consider the puzzle as to which slit or neither a particle goes through in a two-slit experiment in 1940 AD and in a two-slit experiment in 2000 AD. Note that before the collapse of the Schrodinger wave that gives the particle a definite position and infinitely indefinite momentum (or in another type of experiment vice versa) both the propositions 'The electron has a definite position' and 'The electron has a definite momentum' are false. Thus the indefiniteness in quantum mechanics does not imply indeterminateness or absence of truth value of propositions, or a third truth value different from 'true' and 'false'. (p.154-5)

Thus we must say that the future is determinate, just as the present and past are. The whole universe is determinate. This is so whether it is deterministic (as used to be believed) or is indeterministic (as is at present believed). The determinateness of future events does not imply determinism. An event can be just as determinate whether its occurrence does or does not depend on the laws of nature together with some earlier state of the universe. (p.155)

One good thing about thinking of the world spatiotemporally is that it gives us a strong sense of the reality of the future. (A sense that we ought to have anyway.) Because of muddled thinking a lack of feeling for the reality of the future is quite common, and I shall suggest shortly that this muddle may have dangerous practical consequences. Some philosophers have questioned not only the reality of the future but that of the past. This is because of the tendency of a certain type of philosopher to confuse a proposition with the evidence for it, or warranted belief with truth. (p.155)

Connected with the idea that the future is unreal is the idea that we can alter the future but not the past. Now certainly we can causally determine the future but not the past, because in action we are operating an information flow system whose memory base depends on the asymmetry about traces which I discussed in chapter 2. Modulo the fact that I'm not keen on the notion of 'causality' as an appropriate one for theoretical physics, I am open to ideas about backwards causality as regards elementary processes, but macroscopically there does appear to be an asymmetry in the causal grain of the universe. But to say that we can determine the future is not to say that we can change the future. Suppose that I try to change the future by lifting either my left hand or my right hand. I decide to lift my left hand. This does not change the future. Lifting my left hand was the future. The notion of changing the future is equivalent to that of changing things in the Minkowski space-time world. This involves the illegitimate notion of a hyper-time through which the four-dimensional world endures. The attempt to change the future is as foolish as the attempt to demonstrate free will by doing the opposite to what one has just done. As Hume says (Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section VIII, part I, n. 7) we feel that 'the will moves easily every way' and when we try to demonstrate free will 'We consider not that the fantastical desire of showing liberty is here the motive of our action.' (Hume means 'free will in the libertarian sense' – at bottom he is a compatibilist.) Similarly the fantastical desire of showing that we can change the future does not succeed – we merely cause the future to be what it is (tenseless). (p.157)

The Mind-Brain Identity Theory
Smart was one of the early philosophers to propose a pure physicalist solution to the mind-body problem by identifying the mind and the brain, reducing the mind to the brain, and making the "mind" an epiphenomenon or illusion.

The first philosophers to argue for an identity of mind (or consciousness) and brain include Ullin T. Place (1956) and Herbert Feigl (1958).

Place explicitly describes "consciousness as a brain process," specifically as "patterns" of brain activity. He does not trivialize this identity as a succession of individual "mental events and physical events" in some kind of causal chain. He compares this identity to the idea that "lightning is a motion of electrical charges."

Herbert Feigl's work was independent of Place's, but he said that the fundamental idea had been held by many earlier materialist (monist) thinkers. He thought it was stated clearly by Rudolf Carnap in 1925. Feigl describes his own thesis:

The identity thesis which I wish to clarify and to defend asserts that the states of direct experience which conscious beings "live through" and those which we confidently ascribe to some of the higher animals, are identical with certain (presumably configurational) aspects of the neural processes in these organisms.

J.J.C.Smart clarified and extended the identity theory of his colleague U.T.Place

When I say that a sensation is a brain process or that lightning is an electric discharge, I am using "is" in the sense of strict identity. (Just as in the — in this case necessary — proposition "7 is identical with the smallest prime number greater than 5.") When I say that a sensation is a brain process or that lightning is an electric dis- charge I do not mean just that the sensation is somehow spatially or temporally continuous with the brain process or that the lightning is just spatially or temporally continuous with the discharge.

Smart is a strong materialist. He says "A man is a vast arrangement of physical particles, but there are not, over and above this, sensations or states of consciousness." (ibid.)

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